Congestive Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs when your heart becomes weak or stiffens and can’t pump enough blood to meet your body's demands. It doesn’t stop working — it just doesn’t work as effectively as it should. 

Heart Failure | El Camino Health

Heart Failure

Unlike a heart attack that comes on suddenly, heart failure is a long-term condition that develops over time as your heart's pumping ability declines. As a result, the kidneys may respond by causing your body to retain fluid (water) and salt. This causes fluid buildup in your arms, legs, ankles, feet, lungs or other organs, which leads to congestion.

There are two types of heart failure:

  • Systolic dysfunction – Occurs when your heart muscle doesn’t contract well and there's less oxygen-rich blood flowing to the rest of your body.
  • Diastolic dysfunction – Occurs when your heart contracts normally but doesn’t relax well because it’s stiff. When your heart is stiff, less blood is able to enter during the filling phase.

Heart failure is caused by diseases that damage the heart, mainly coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Other conditions such as heart valve disease, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy and congenital heart defects, can also lead to heart failure.


Although some risk factors can't be controlled — such as being 65 or older or being African American — there are a number of steps you can take to lower your risk of heart failure. Adopt these healthy behaviors to lower your risk:

  • Follow a healthy diet. Incorporate a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy products into your diet. Minimize saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugar. Eliminate alcohol, as it can make your condition worse.
  • Control your weight and exercise regularly. If you're overweight, talk to your doctor about a diet and exercise program that's right for you. Maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active will improve your overall health and lower your risk of all types of heart disease.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking damages blood vessels and increases your risk of cardiovascular and other types of disease. Also, try to avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Treat and control underlying health conditions. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes or another form of heart disease, make sure you're following your doctors recommendations and taking prescribed medicines as directed.

Need help adopting a healthy diet, quitting smoking or managing stress? The Norma Melchor Heart & Vascular Institute at El Camino Health offers a variety of classes and programs to help you lower your risk of heart failure and other types of heart disease. We can help you incorporate heart-healthy behaviors into your lifestyle.


Heart failure causes a buildup of fluid in your body, which can result in symptoms such as:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs and abdomen

As your heart becomes weaker, your symptoms get worse. You may feel out of breath after walking across the room or even while lying down.

Diagnosis and Treatment

There's no single test to diagnose heart failure, so your doctor may perform a few tests to confirm your condition.

At the Norma Melchor Heart & Vascular Institute, our doctors use advanced diagnostic imaging — such as such echocardiography, CT- or MRI-assisted angiography or nuclear cardiography — to diagnose your condition and plan treatment. Your doctor can use an echocardiogram calculation, called the ejection fraction (EF), to assess your heart's pumping ability and determine whether you have systolic, diastolic or both types of heart failure.

Depending on your condition, your doctor may use one or more treatments to treat your heart failure, including:

  • Lifestyle changes. Regardless of the severity of your condition, your doctor will recommend you adopt heart-healthy lifestyle behaviors — the same behaviors you'd adopt to prevent heart failure.
  • Proper fluid intake. Because heart failure can involve a buildup of fluid, your doctor will recommend how much and what you should drink to manage your health.
  • Medicines. Medications can help reduce fluid buildup, lower blood pressure, decrease your heart's workload or help your heart pump more effectively. Your doctor will determine which medicines are right for you.
  • Ongoing evaluation. Your doctor can help you learn how to identify symptoms that can signal a change in your condition. He or she can also recommend when you should have screenings and checkups.

Surgical Care

When lifestyle changes and medications aren't effective, the heart care experts at El Camino Health can provide advanced surgical treatment for heart failure by treating the underlying causes of the condition. Our specialists provide catheter-based approaches to treat valve disease — including MitraClip® and CoreValve® — and the latest techniques to treat arrhythmias, which can restore your heart's pumping ability.