Do you know your heart?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Did you know that more than 5 million Americans are living with congestive heart failure? A recent study by the American Heart Association revealed that congestive heart failure is one of the most common reasons for hospital admissions among people age 65 and older. But this condition is not limited to seniors.  Unfortunately, some people may not become aware that they have congestive heart failure until they begin exhibiting signs and symptoms, which may not appear until years after the heart begins to decline.

The words heart failure sound like the heart is no longer working at all when, actually, heart failure means that the heart isn’t pumping as well as it should. Your body depends on your heart pumping to supply the necessary amount of blood to your cells. If you have congestive heart failure, your heart is unable to supply your cells with enough blood, which can make you feel tired and out of breath for no reason.

Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition. The heart muscle becomes weakened over time and can no longer handle its workload. At first, the heart will enlarge so it can contract more strongly and pump more blood. Next, the contracting cells of the heart will get bigger, letting the heart pump more strongly. Then, the heart will begin to pump faster, helping to increase its output. The heart is actually overcompensating. These temporary changes only mask the problem of heart failure.

“These actions are only a temporary fix,” said Dr. Ben Tegala, an internal medicine physician on staff at River Parishes Hospital. “Eventually the heart just can’t keep up, so you experience fatigue, breathing problems or other symptoms that usually prompt a trip to the doctor.”

 In its early stages, heart failure can often be managed with medication and lifestyle changes. Following your physician’s recommendations about diet and exercise can help alleviate symptoms and slow its progression. You will need to watch your fluid intake to make sure your body is not retaining fluid. Avoid drinking alcohol and limit your caffeine. If you have high blood pressure, take the necessary steps to keep it within normal range because prolonged high blood pressure can cause the chambers of the heart to get larger and weaker. Take steps to control your diabetes because high blood sugar levels increase the risk of developing congestive heart failure. Be sure to get your flu and pneumonia shots. Both flu and pneumonia pose a greater threat to people who have heart failure.

“By taking your medication as directed and making some simple changes, you can greatly reduce your risk of congestive heart failure,” said Tegala. “Having regular checkups with your doctor is important to diagnose the disease in its early stages so you can begin treatment sooner.”

As the disease progresses and the heart becomes weaker, treatment gets more complex. Even when the disease becomes more advanced, there are still treatment options available. Regardless of your treatment, you need to follow all of your doctor’s recommendations and make the necessary changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle to give you the highest possible quality of life.

If you have been diagnosed with heart failure, it’s important for you to keep track of symptoms and report any sudden changes to your doctor. Below is a list of signs and symptoms that could suggest a person is suffering with congestive heart failure:

Shortness of breath: Breathlessness during activity (most commonly), at rest, or while sleeping, which may come on suddenly and wake you up. You often have difficulty breathing while lying flat and may need to prop up the upper body and head on two pillows. You often complain of waking up tired or feeling anxious and restless.

Persistent coughing or wheezing: This includes coughing that produces white or pink blood-tinged mucus.

Build up of excess fluid in body tissue: You may experience swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen, or you may have a sudden weight gain.

Tiredness or fatigue: You may feel tired all the time and have difficulty with everyday activities, such as shopping, climbing stairs, carrying groceries or walking.

Lack of appetite or nausea: You may feel full or sick to your stomach.

Confused or impaired thinking: You may suffer from memory loss and feel disoriented.

Increased heart rate: You may experience heart palpitations, which feel like your heart is racing or throbbing.

For more information about congestive heart failure and the steps you can take to lower your risk, visit the American Heart Association’s website at

River Parishes Hospital recently implemented a Congestive Heart Failure Support Group to help provide guidance and support to people who are at risk for or who have recently been diagnosed with this chronic disease. Monthly meetings are held in the hospital’s Administrative Conference Room. Meetings are led by a registered nurse who can help patients adopt the lifestyle changes that are necessary to manage the disease.  Physician speakers will be called in periodically to discuss medications and treatment options available. Reservations are not necessary. For more information, call 985-651-1524.

“When you or someone you love is diagnosed with congestive heart failure, it can be frightening,” said Tegala. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone. The disease can be managed with lifestyle changes and a good healthcare team.”

Tegala is affiliated with the practices of Dr. Colin Bailey, Family Practice, and Dr. Andrew St. Martin, Family Practice, at the LaPlace Medical Center. Their office is located at 735 W. Fifth St. in LaPlace. Appointments may be made by calling 985-652-9504.