Congestive Heart Failure and Palliative Care

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a chronic condition in which the heart is unable to pump your blood properly. It can cause breathing problems and other symptoms, such as weakness and swollen feet and ankles.

Congestive Heart Failure Symptoms and Treatment— How Palliative Care Can Help

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people facing serious illnesses like CHF. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family. You can have palliative care at any age and at any stage of your illness. You can also have it together with curative treatment.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists who work together with your other doctors to give you an extra layer of support.

Palliative care teams work in close partnership with your cardiologist (heart specialist) and other specialists. In addition to prescribing medications for your pain and other symptoms, team members have a wide variety of approaches to treating congestive heart failure that do not involve drugs.

For example, palliative care teams are expertly trained to perform highly effective lymphatic drainage, a technique for reducing leg swelling and its associated pain. They’ll educate you about how to stand, sit and lie down to improve your breathing comfort. They’ll also train you in the use of fans, relaxation methods, meditation and breathing exercises to decrease any anxiety or panic that may accompany feelings of breathlessness.

Palliative care is also there to guide you and your loved ones through the distress caused by CHF. The team will help you navigate the complex health care system and keep you and your family informed, up to date and in control.

Because episodes can become worse, sudden and unpredictable, palliative care specialists can help you plan in advance for the next time it happens. In fact, one of the most important things your palliative care team can do is to help you fully discuss your health situation with your family.

Understanding that every patient and every family is different, the team uses its communications expertise to work with you, one-to-one, to help you develop a realistic idea of what congestive heart failure is, how it works, where it might lead and what it means, specifically, to you.

The team can help you and your family clarify your personal goals for care and guide you in expressing your values and concerns. In the end, the team’s most important goal is to help you and your family achieve the best possible quality of life as you live with CHF.

Patient Perspectives: Mary’s Palliative Care Story

In this episode of our Quality Life series, we hear from Mary Tibbats, caregiver to her 88 year-old mother Mary Nolan, who has diabetes. After a rehab visit at the hospital to improve her blood flow, she went into congestive heart failure. Mary Tibbats shares how palliative care not only helped coordinate her mother’s care and improve her quality of life, but provided support to Mary as she dealt with caregiver burnout.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one needs palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral.

Finding a hospital with a palliative care team in your area is easy. Just go to GetPalliativeCare.org/providers for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.

For detailed patient and caregiver information on congestive heart failure including warning signs, treatment research and tips to getting healthy, visit the American Heart Association (heart.org/HEARTORG). To connect with others who have experienced congestive heart failure either as a survivor, as someone who cares for a loved or as a friend or family member, visit the American Heart Association’s Support Network (supportnetwork.heart.org/heart).