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5 common myths about heart failure

About 6.2 million adults in the U.S. are living with heart failure. Considering how common it is, you may think you know heart failure, but let’s put your knowledge to the test. It’s time to bust the five most common myths and misconceptions I hear about heart failure.

1. Heart failure is when your heart has stopped beating.

This myth is false! Heart failure does not mean your heart has failed completely and it is not the same as a heart attack. 

Heart failure means that your heart is no longer able to pump blood as effectively to the body. Your heart is a muscle that works like a pump — during every heartbeat, your heart contracts (or squeezes) to pump blood to the rest of the body, then relaxes to refill with blood before it squeezes again. 

Heart failure means the heart is weak or stiff, and a problem has developed with the pumping function. If it is weak, it does not squeeze well. If your heart cannot squeeze well, this often is called systolic heart failure, or heart failure with reduced ejection fraction. 

If your heart is stiff, it does not fill properly. If it doesn’t fill with enough blood, this often is called diastolic heart failure, or heart failure with preserved ejection fraction. A stiff heart cannot fill with enough blood to send to the rest of your body. 

Typically, the heart is either weak and doesn’t squeeze well, or stiff and doesn’t fill well. Sometimes, the heart can be both weak and stiff simultaneously. Both of these problems make it hard for your heart to pump enough blood to your body. 

2. Heart failure is different from congestive heart failure.

Heart failure and congestive heart failure, or CHF, are actually interchangeable terms used to describe the same disease process. The “congestive” label is describing some of the symptoms, or congestion, that can occur as a result of developing heart failure. 

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This congestion is sort of like a traffic jam. In a traffic jam, the road is congested and cars get backed up. In heart failure, the blood vessels are congested and fluid gets backed up. The fluid builds up in or around the lungs, abdomen and legs. Symptoms related to this fluid buildup can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Lingering cough
  • Inability to lie flat at night when sleeping
  • Abdominal fullness
  • Swelling in the legs and/or feet

3. Heart failure only happens to older people with existing heart problems.

False. In fact, heart failure can happen for a variety of reasons. There are many conditions that can cause damage to the heart muscle and impact the heart’s ability to pump effectively. Some of these conditions can occur in young people who have no other medical problems. Conditions that can lead to heart failure include: 

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Prior heart attacks
  • Heart valve problems
  • An abnormal heart rhythm (too fast, too slow or irregular)
  • Heart defects at birth
  • Enlarged heart
  • Genetic disorders
  • Obesity
  • Severe lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Aging
  • Sleep apnea 
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Virus or other infections

4. Heart failure is a death sentence.

Heart failure is a long-term, chronic condition — but there are ways to treat and manage it so you can live well. 

Heart failure usually gets worse over time and although there is no cure for heart failure, there are treatments available, including medications, diet, activity and self-care. These treatments help manage symptoms related to heart failure and can help you live longer. 

People with heart failure and low ejection fraction are also at risk for life-threatening heart rhythm problems.These people typically end up receiving an implanted defibrillator, which provides protection if the heart rhythm occurs. While a defibrillator does not treat heart failure, it can save your life. Some people also benefit from an implanted device that helps keep the heart beating in sync. 

There are also more advanced treatment options available for people who experience a progression of heart failure, which includes options such as chronic IV medications (inotropes), LVAD (artificial heart pump) or heart transplant. There are also new treatment options for heart failure that are being studied all the time, so be sure and talk to your doctor about possible clinical trials.

Related: 4 discoveries transforming heart failure care

5. There are no specialists for heart failure treatment.

Actually, there are cardiologists who have advanced training and certification in heart failure management. 

When heart failure progresses to an advanced stage and no longer responds to conventional therapies, patients may be referred to one of these advanced heart failure specialists. The primary role of advanced heart failure specialists is to manage complex treatments and perform procedures to improve overall quality of life for patients with heart failure. 

Some of these treatments and procedures include IV inotrope therapy, right heart catheterization, heart biopsies, LVADs and heart transplants. 

Did these common heart failure myths surprise you? Find a cardiologist near you today to learn more. Together, we can work toward a healthier future.

About the author

Rachel Pigeon, MSN, APRN, FNP-C

Rachel Pigeon, MSN, APRN, FNP-C, is a nurse practitioner for advanced heart failure and mechanical circulatory support (MCS) at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth.

Taylor Teagarden, BSN, RN, CCRN

Taylor Teagarden, BSN, RN, CCRN, is a ventricular assist device (VAD) coordinator on staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth.

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5 common myths about heart failure