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Matters of the Heart

The truth about heart failure, and how it is treated

Posted on March 01, 2011 and filed under Wellness.

While most people are familiar with heart attacks, a more prominent and very different heart condition that affects almost 5 million Americans is less well known—heart failure. However, there is good news: Heart failure can be easily detected, and treatment methods have proven very effective, said Jonathan Safren, M.D., a cardiologist with Saint Agnes Hospital.

Dr. Safren, who has been at Saint Agnes since 1995, said that heart failure is caused by either a weak heart muscle or a heart muscle with normal strength that doesn’t relax well and becomes stiff.

The common symptoms in heart failure are unexpected shortness of breath and inexplicable fatigue. Some patients also experience heart palpitations, fainting, increased thirst, chest pains, swelling of the ankles and unexplained weight gain.

The good news, Dr. Safren noted, is that a general physical exam typically will detect heart failure, further emphasizing the need for routine physicals. Abnormal heart sounds and evidence of fluid in the lungs usually will be detected, and vital sign readings and chest X-rays also can detect the condition.

There have been great advances in medication for treating heart failure. “New medications have revolutionized the condition.  They are very effective, and patients feel better and live longer; medication is the first line of defense,” Dr. Safren said.

Surgical Options

Beyond medication, there are surgical options as well. “If the heart has a certain level of weakness, it can cause heart rhythm abnormalities, which can cause death. A heart defibrillator can be inserted, which will detect and correct any lethal arrhythmia.” Dr. Safren noted that many heart failure patients are candidates for a defibrillator, coupled with taking their medications.

Other surgical options include a biventricular pacemaker to improve synchrony, bypass surgery, heart transplant (although only 2,500 are performed annually in the United States) and more contemporary methods involving stem cells.

Of course, there are ways to prevent your risk of heart failure.  “Many of the methods to prevent heart failure overlap with those used to prevent a heart attack. Control your cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes; don’t smoke, exercise, and eat well,” Dr.  Safren said, adding that there are some causes that simply cannot be avoided like viruses and infections such as cardiomyopathy.

Our Patients Come First

Dr. Safren, who is in charge of the Heart Failure Center, part of the Cardiovascular Institute at Saint Agnes, said the hospital’s hands-on approach after treatment is vital to patients’ success. “If you look at the statistics of patients who are treated at a hospital and must be readmitted within 30 days due to complications, most of them are heart disease patients. The patient’s course of action after discharge can be very complicated. At the Heart Failure Center, when patients are discharged, we see them again within a week. We’re the bridge to the first outpatient appointment with an internist or family doctor,” Dr. Safren said.

“We have two nurse practitioners and a registered nurse who spend hours with patients educating them on exercise and nutrition, even showing what to look for on food labels.” He added that, for those with financial challenges for medication, nurses can help find programs that assist with prescription drug costs or provide samples.

“We also are well-staffed, and make ourselves available for follow-up appointments. Patients shouldn’t have to wait weeks for an appointment,” he said, emphasizing the department’s continuing commitment to all the patients it serves.


For more information on the Heart Failure Center at Saint Agnes, call 410-368-2246 or click here.

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