The treatment options available for heart failure patients depend upon the cause of the condition, its stage, and the patient’s responsiveness and medical history. Because so many variables are involved, the various treatment options available for heart failure patients tend to be complementary rather than competing — they treat this or that particularity of the patient’s condition. While heart failure is a progressive clinical condition for which there is no cure, there are many effective treatment options, both established and experimental, which can minimize symptoms, improve the heart’s performance, and slow the progression of the disease.
In some cases, an underlying cause of the failing heart, such as coronary artery disease or high blood pressure, can be corrected. For others, the underlying cause is moot, as when a patient suffers permanent damage due to chemotherapy or alcohol abuse. Regardless of the cause, all heart failure patients have the same fundamental problem: a heart that cannot keep pace with the body’s needs.
Early intervention with lifestyle changes and drug therapy has proven reasonably effective in treating heart failure, and it is the cornerstone of nearly every heart failure treatment regimen. In the initial stages of the disease, these measures allow heart failure patients live relatively normal lives. But as they reach late-stage heart failure (advanced NYHA class III or NYHA class IV designations), their suffering increases and many persevere in exhaustion and misery.
Since the heart’s key function is to circulate blood and fluids throughout the body, all heart failure treatments are aimed at increasing blood flow. The goal of any treatment regimen is to reduce the workload on the weakened heart, to help the patient manage symptoms, and to slow the weakening of the heart, which can then be monitored with a routine echocardiogram. In some cases, it may be possible to strengthen or rehabilitate the heart. If not, the heart gradually loses more of its viability, and late-stage treatment options such as a mechanical assist device or heart transplant must be considered.
Changes to a heart failure patient’s dietary habits and lifestyle may be among the first and most important steps taken to treat the disease. Patients are generally advised to limit their intake of fluids in order to reduce the volume of fluid that the heart must move through the body. A doctor may prescribe a diuretic as well, to help remove excess water from the patient’s system.
In general, heart failure patients will want to lower their consumption of sodium, fat, and cholesterol, since all of these contribute to high blood pressure, which burdens the heart. Some patients may be advised to eat potassium-rich foods, since potassium is needed to regulate the heartbeat, and potassium levels in the body can be reduced by the action of diuretics.
When monitored by a doctor, moderate exercise can help keep a heart failure patient’s heart in shape. All patients should limit alcohol and caffeine and should quit smoking.