CHF is a medical abbreviation for congestive heart failure (sometimes referred to simply as “heart failure”), in which the heart is unable to properly circulate blood. In these cases, the heart hasn’t actually stopped functioning altogether, rather its muscles are failing to keep up with the body’s needs.
This typically chronic condition causes blood to pool in arteries and veins, leading to swelling (usually in the feet and ankles), fluid build-up in the lungs, and kidney problems, among many other symptoms. Requiring immediate medical attention, CHF most often arises in those who’ve had or are having other heart problems like coronary artery disease (CAD), hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart attack.
Using the CHF Medical Abbreviation
A sub-type of a broader category of heart failure that also includes right and left-sided heart failure, CHF is quite common, with almost 5 million living with it in the U.S. As such, you’ll most likely hear “CHF”
be used when your primary care physician or a cardiologist suspect the condition, or when the other types of heart failure have been ruled out.
Since this condition is usually caused by a range of different heart conditions, the term has utility in highlighting the effect of weakened heart muscles and compromised circulation. In the clinical setting, the cardiology team will have a reasonable understanding of what’s happening when they hear “CHF.”
Why Your Doctor Might Discuss CHF
CHF most often arises as a result of other heart conditions, though it can also occur on its own. As such, it’ll be screened for when other conditions, such as coronary artery disease (CAD), type 2 diabetes, irregular heartbeat, or high blood pressure, are present.
It may also be a concern if you’ve had a heart attack, were born with heart valve defects, or have contracted some viruses, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and this may also prompt screening. Finally, cancer patients who’ve undergone radiation therapy may also experience damage to the heart leading to CHF.
Signs of CHF
The symptoms of CHF include:
- Breathing problems and chronic cough
- Rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
- Lack of appetite
- Weakness in arms and legs
- Confusion and impaired thinking
- Swelling in extremities
- Rapid weight gain
Risks of CHF
The severity of CHF can vary a great deal; however, often because of its association with other health issues, the condition can be deadly. More than half of those diagnosed with CHF are have been found to die within five years of diagnosis.
The condition requires management and will get worse if untreated, especially in cases where symptoms are becoming dangerous, as when lungs start filling with fluid. Notably, those who’ve been diagnosed are six to nine times more likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest, in which the heart stops.
CHF is particular a point of concern for those with other health conditions or risk factors. These include:
- Age over 65
- History of heart attack
- Being African-American
- Being obese or overweight
- Type 2 diabetes
- Congenital heart defects
How CHF is Diagnosed
Several tests are used to diagnose CHF:
- Physical evaluation: Your doctor goes over your symptoms, medical history, and any medications and supplements you’re taking. They listen to your heart using a stethoscope, check blood pressure and other vital measures, and test your blood.
- Chest X-ray: X-ray imaging of the chest lets doctors see if the heart has become enlarged and if blood is pooling in the lungs.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG): Heart rhythm, rate, and electrical activity are recorded using electrodes placed on the test to assess the effects of previous heart attack, swelling in cardiac arteries, and irregular heartbeat.
- Echocardiography: Colloquially called “echo,” this test relies on ultrasound to examine the motion and structure of the heart.
- Cardiac stress test: Blood pressure, heart rate, and other important measures are monitored while walking on a treadmill and afterward.
- MUGA scan: Also known as radionuclide ventriculography (RVG), this test relies on injecting a radioactive dye into the blood stream to examine the heart using nuclear imaging.
- Cardiac catheterization: Using a catheter (a tube inserted into the body), doctors access the heart or arteries just outside of it and emit a contrast dye. The heart is then X-rayed, producing images called angiograms.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This type of imaging relies on magnetic fields and radio waves to create accurate, interactive computer images of the heart.
What You Should Know About CHF
Primarily, the damaging effects of CHF have to do with “congestion,” or the improper pooling of blood due to the failure of healthy circulation. Overtime, problems get worse as the body attempts to compensate for this issue, leading to:
- Enlarged heart as cardiac muscles pump harder and grow
- Elevated heart rate to make up for insufficient blood flow
- Narrowed vessels to preserve dangerously low blood pressure
- Diverted blood flow to crucial parts of the body and away from the limbs
These factors, alongside the impact of blood congestion in parts of the body, contribute to the range of CHF symptoms that are seen.
Primarily, CHF is related to heart health. It arises due to:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD): Plaque-build up in coronary arteries causes them to narrow or becoming blocked, severely impacting blood flow. Notably, CAD can lead to angina (chest pains), heart attack, and other issues.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure): Elevated blood pressure over the long-term can also cause plaque build-up and weaken the heart.
- Type 2 diabetes: Chronic cases of this disease, in which the body is unable to process some foods, can also impact cardiac activity and output.
- Arrhythmia: Irregular and rapid heartbeat due to problems in electrical signaling in the heart may also lead to insufficient blood circulation.
- Cardiomyopathy: This condition is characterized by heart muscles becoming enlarged and rigid.
- Heart valve disease: Congenital conditions and some viruses can cause narrowing and obstruction in heart valves like aortic stenosis, among others.
- Rheumatic heart disease: In cases of the bacterial infection rheumatic fever, the heart becomes scarred and chronically inflamed.
- Infection: Some viruses, including the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) among others, can lead to inflammation and obstruction in the heart.
- Radiation damage: CHF can also occur due to radiation damage of heart muscles due to cancer treatment.
- Alcohol/drug abuse: Heavy alcohol and cocaine use can also lead to damage of cardiac muscles.
Given how severe CHF can be, it’s important to understand prevention strategies for the condition. These include:
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, and adopting a heart-healthy diet.
- Manage excess weight, if you’re obese or overweight.
- Treat diabetes by taking the proper medications and adjusting lifestyle.
- Monitor cholesterol levels and do what you can to keep these healthy.
- Take on high blood pressure by using prescribed medications or making other changes.
- Quit smoking or using nicotine products.
- Medications prescribed by your doctor can help preserve heart health.
There is no specific cure for CHF, so treatment relies on taking on the underlying conditions that have caused it. Therapy for this type of heart disease can include:
- Heart-healthy lifestyle changes: Adjusting exercise levels, diet, and other aspects of health can combat the conditions underlying CHF to help manage it.
- Drug therapy: Medications that lower blood pressure and ease cardiac strain can help. These include ACE inhibitors Lotensin (benazepril), Valsotec (enalapril), and others, beta blockers Lopresor (metoprolol), Inderal (propranolol), and others, and angiotensin receptor blockers Diovan (valsartan), Avapro (irbesartan), and others.
- Surgery: Treating CAD, heart attack, or other heart conditions leading to CHF will help take it on. This may mean anything from coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG) to less invasive therapies, such as angioplasty (the placing stents in arteries to open them up).
- Taking on other diseases: Managing type 2 diabetes can also critically prevent the further development of CHF.
- Pacemaker: Since CHF can cause the left and right sides of the heart to become out of sync, a pacemaker device may help correct this issue and reduce symptoms.
- Defibrillator: In cases where heartbeat comes very irregular and rapid, doctors may need to surgically implant a special electronic device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to monitor rhythm and correct it as necessary.
CHF Complications Related to Other Body Functions
CHF doesn’t only affect the heart. In fact, some of the most prominent symptoms arise due to the effect of blood congestion in other organ systems. These include:
- Nausea and lack of appetite: Feeling sick, vomiting, and lack of hunger associated with CHF are due to affected blood supply to the liver and digestive system.
- Swelling: Swelling in the extremities arises as kidneys receiving insufficient blood emit hormones that retain salt and water.
- Weight gain: The rapid weight gain associated with CHF is also related to hormonal imbalances and retention of salt and water caused by insufficient circulation of blood.
- Confusion and impaired thinking: Impaired thinking, confusion, and other cognitive effects result from increased levels of sodium (salt) and other substances as a result of insufficient blood supply to the kidneys.
A Word From Verywell
There’s no doubt that CHF is a term that most wouldn’t want to hear coming from their doctor. As with any condition related to the heart, this disease has a cascade of effects, and, especially if left
untreated, can be fatal.
That said, you’re far from alone if you have this diagnosis, and there are many treatment strategies available to take it on. While the road isn’t easy—most often, getting a handle of CHF means making significant changes or undergoing significant treatment—it’s important to remember that management is indeed possible.
As techniques, therapies, and technologies continue to evolve, the outlook for those with this disease will only get rosier.