Congestive heart failure is an insidious opponent, possessing a slow onset that results in a patient often not even noticing they are having symptoms. Over time the patient will suffer from worsening dyspnea and edema that will eventually drive them to seek treatment, where they will discover that for whatever reason their heart is no longer able to function properly.
Heart failure occurs when the cells of the heart tissue are either destroyed or made non-functional due to another cardiac event, often secondary to ischemic heart disease or coronary artery disease. As a result, the heart is no longer able to pump the blood throughout the body properly; instead the blood pools, resulting in fluids being retained rather than excreted properly and oxygen starved organs being unable to function. The death of these cells is critical because, like brain cells, once the cells of the heart die the body is unable to reproduce them and restore full function to the heart. Congestive heart failure carries with it a high mortality rate, with over fifty percent of its victims dying within five years of being diagnosed. Doctors and researchers are able to use modern advancements in medicine to make the patient more comfortable and, in many cases, to provide them with a more favorable prognosis.
Many patients do not even discover that they have suffered heart failure until they are brought into the Emergency Department of their local hospital complaining of chest pain and difficulty breathing. Doctors will stabilize them there, giving them supplemental oxygen and beginning a course of medicinal treatment that will carry them out of the hospital.
Modern science has provided physicians with a wide array of methods with which to combat the damage done by congestive heart failure. Once oxygen is returned to an acceptable level a physician will usually administer a diuretic to stimulate the renal system to pull fluid out of circulation, relieving the edema and taking a great of stress off of the lungs, heart and other organs. This will also usually be accompanied by supplemental potassium, as the renal system will remove potassium along with the excess fluid and hypokalemia carries with it its own hazards.
A great deal of attention in the field of medicine has been focused on the body’s production of angiotensin II as it aggravates congestive heart failure. Angiotensin II is a substance produced by the body which raises blood pressure and causes the blood vessels to constrict, thereby forcing the heart to work much harder to pump blood throughout the body. An ACE inhibitor will often be administered to prevent the body from making angiotensin II, and an angiotensin receptor blocker is available to those who do not respond as desired to the ACE inhibitor. Many patients with heart problems are given nitroglycerin for this reason.
Along with medicine, research into the field of congestive heart failure is ongoing. The speculated use of stem cells, particularly embryonic stem cells, has opened a whole field of debate for possible treatment of heart failure in the science community. Patients with congestive heart failure were given some of their own stem cells in the heart via injection, and all reacted favorably. Scientists are unsure as to whether this is because the stem cells aid the body in growing new vessels or simply act as a lighthouse for the body’s natural healing mechanisms, drawing other cells to the site of the damage. Whichever the case may be, stem cells present a fascinating opportunity to finally find a means by which to restore heart function to patients who have suffered heart failure.
Modern science is providing a whole new world of treatment options to patients with congestive heart failure, and researchers are making new discoveries all the time. It is the hope of all of those in the medical field that one day heart failure will be another disease medicine has the answer to.