Heart failure is a chronic disease needing lifelong management. However, with treatment, signs and symptoms of heart failure can improve, and the heart sometimes becomes stronger. Treatment may help you live longer and reduce your chance of dying suddenly.
Doctors sometimes can correct heart failure by treating the underlying cause. For example, repairing a heart valve or controlling a fast heart rhythm may reverse heart failure. But for most people, the treatment of heart failure involves a balance of the right medications and, in some cases, use of devices that help the heart beat and contract properly.
Doctors usually treat heart failure with a combination of medications. Depending on your symptoms, you might take one or more medications, including:
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. These drugs help people with systolic heart failure live longer and feel better. ACE inhibitors are a type of vasodilator, a drug that widens blood vessels to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and decrease the workload on the heart. Examples include enalapril (Vasotec), lisinopril (Zestril) and captopril (Capoten).
Angiotensin II receptor blockers. These drugs, which include losartan (Cozaar) and valsartan (Diovan), have many of the same benefits as ACE inhibitors. They may be an alternative for people who can't tolerate ACE inhibitors.
Beta blockers. This class of drugs not only slows your heart rate and reduces blood pressure but also limits or reverses some of the damage to your heart if you have systolic heart failure. Examples include carvedilol (Coreg), metoprolol (Lopressor) and bisoprolol (Zebeta).
These medicines reduce the risk of some abnormal heart rhythms and lessen your chance of dying unexpectedly. Beta blockers may reduce signs and symptoms of heart failure, improve heart function, and help you live longer.
Diuretics. Often called water pills, diuretics make you urinate more frequently and keep fluid from collecting in your body. Diuretics, such as furosemide (Lasix), also decrease fluid in your lungs so you can breathe more easily.
Because diuretics make your body lose potassium and magnesium, your doctor may also prescribe supplements of these minerals. If you're taking a diuretic, your doctor will likely monitor levels of potassium and magnesium in your blood through regular blood tests.
Aldosterone antagonists. These drugs include spironolactone (Aldactone) and eplerenone (Inspra). These are potassium-sparing diuretics, which also have additional properties that may help people with severe systolic heart failure live longer.
Unlike some other diuretics, spironolactone and eplerenone can raise the level of potassium in your blood to dangerous levels, so talk to your doctor if increased potassium is a concern, and learn if you need to modify your intake of food that's high in potassium.
Inotropes. These are intravenous medications used in people with severe heart failure in the hospital to improve heart pumping function and maintain blood pressure.
Digoxin (Lanoxin). This drug, also referred to as digitalis, increases the strength of your heart muscle contractions. It also tends to slow the heartbeat. Digoxin reduces heart failure symptoms in systolic heart failure. It may be more likely to be given to someone with a heart rhythm problem, such as atrial fibrillation.
You may need to take two or more medications to treat heart failure. Your doctor may prescribe other heart medications as well — such as nitrates for chest pain, a statin to lower cholesterol or blood-thinning medications to help prevent blood clots — along with heart failure medications. Your doctor may need to adjust your doses frequently, especially when you've just started a new medication or when your condition is worsening.
You may be hospitalized if you have a flare-up of heart failure symptoms. While in the hospital, you may receive additional medications to help your heart pump better and relieve your symptoms. You may also receive supplemental oxygen through a mask or small tubes placed in your nose. If you have severe heart failure, you may need to use supplemental oxygen long term.
Surgery and medical devices
In some cases, doctors recommend surgery to treat the underlying problem that led to heart failure. Some treatments being studied and used in certain people include:
Coronary bypass surgery. If severely blocked arteries are contributing to your heart failure, your doctor may recommend coronary artery bypass surgery. In this procedure, blood vessels from your leg, arm or chest bypass a blocked artery in your heart to allow blood to flow through your heart more freely.
Heart valve repair or replacement. If a faulty heart valve causes your heart failure, your doctor may recommend repairing or replacing the valve. The surgeon can modify the original valve to eliminate backward blood flow. Surgeons can also repair the valve by reconnecting valve leaflets or by removing excess valve tissue so that the leaflets can close tightly. Sometimes repairing the valve includes tightening or replacing the ring around the valve (annuloplasty).
Valve replacement is done when valve repair isn't possible. In valve replacement surgery, the damaged valve is replaced by an artificial (prosthetic) valve.
Certain types of heart valve repair or replacement can now be done without open heart surgery, using either minimally invasive surgery or cardiac catheterization techniques.
Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs). An ICD is a device similar to a pacemaker. It's implanted under the skin in your chest with wires leading through your veins and into your heart.
The ICD monitors the heart rhythm. If the heart starts beating at a dangerous rhythm, or if your heart stops, the ICD tries to pace your heart or shock it back into normal rhythm. An ICD can also function as a pacemaker and speed your heart up if it is going too slow.
Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT), or biventricular pacing. A biventricular pacemaker sends timed electrical impulses to both of the heart's lower chambers (the left and right ventricles) so that they pump in a more efficient, coordinated manner.
Many people with heart failure have problems with their heart's electrical system that cause their already-weak heart muscle to beat in an uncoordinated fashion. This inefficient muscle contraction may cause heart failure to worsen. Often a biventricular pacemaker is combined with an ICD for people with heart failure.
Ventricular assist devices (VADs). A VAD, also known as a mechanical circulatory support device, is an implantable mechanical pump that helps pump blood from the lower chambers of your heart (the ventricles) to the rest of your body. A VAD is implanted into the abdomen or chest and attached to a weakened heart to help it pump blood to the rest of your body.
Doctors first used heart pumps to help keep heart transplant candidates alive while they waited for a donor heart. VADs may also be used as an alternative to transplantation. Implanted heart pumps can enhance the quality of life of some people with severe heart failure who aren't eligible for or able to undergo heart transplantation or are waiting for a new heart.
Heart transplant. Some people have such severe heart failure that surgery or medications don't help. They may need to have their diseased heart replaced with a healthy donor heart.
Heart transplants can improve the survival and quality of life of some people with severe heart failure. However, candidates for transplantation often have to wait a long time before a suitable donor heart is found. Some transplant candidates improve during this waiting period through drug treatment or device therapy and can be removed from the transplant waiting list.
A heart transplant isn't the right treatment for everyone. A team of doctors at a transplant center will evaluate you to determine whether the procedure may be safe and beneficial for you.
Palliative care and end-of-life care
Your doctor may recommend including palliative care in your treatment plan. Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on easing your symptoms and improving your quality of life. Anyone who has a serious or life-threatening illness can benefit from palliative care, either to treat symptoms of the disease, such as pain or shortness of breath, or to ease the side effects of treatment, such as fatigue or nausea.
It's possible that your heart failure may worsen to the point where medications are no longer working and a heart transplant or device isn't an option. If this occurs, you may need to enter hospice care. Hospice care provides a special course of treatment to terminally ill people.
Hospice care allows family and friends — with the aid of nurses, social workers and trained volunteers — to care for and comfort a loved one at home or in hospice residences. Hospice care provides emotional, psychological, social and spiritual support for people who are ill and those closest to them.
Although most people under hospice care remain in their own homes, the program is available anywhere — including nursing homes and assisted living centers. For people who stay in a hospital, specialists in end-of-life care can provide comfort, compassionate care and dignity.
Although it can be difficult, discuss end-of-life issues with your family and medical team. Part of this discussion will likely involve advance directives — a general term for oral and written instructions you give concerning your medical care should you become unable to speak for yourself.
If you have an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), one important consideration to discuss with your family and doctors is turning off the defibrillator so that it can't deliver shocks to make your heart continue beating.