Congestive cardiac failure

Congestive cardiac failure (CCF), also known as congestive heart failure (CHF), refers to the clinical syndrome caused by inherited or acquired abnormalities of heart structure and function, causing a constellation of symptoms and signs that lead to decreased quality and quantity of life.

CCF is common, affecting 2% of all adults in developed nations, and up to 10% of adults over 65 years old 1. The condition is thought to affect up to 20 million people worldwide 1.

Clinical presentation varies considerably depending on the severity and aetiology of CCF 1,2. Traditionally, symptoms can be clustered into either being attributed to left ventricular dysfunction or right ventricular dysfunction, although in reality, most patients will have manifestations from both clusters 1,2.

  • left-predominant symptoms and signs
    • exertional dyspnoea and fatigue 1,2
      • orthopnoea: dyspnoea in the recumbent position, may use multiple pillows at night 1,2
      • paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnoea: dyspnoea that awakens the patient from sleep, usually only after 1-2 hours, and may have a chronic nocturnal cough and cardiac asthma 1,2
      • bendopnoea: dyspnoea while bending forward 3
    • angina 1,2
    • syncope and cerebral dysfunction 1,2
    • cyanosis 1,2
    • other organ dysfunction 1,2
    • added heart sounds 1,2
      • S3 ‘ventricular gallop’ (occurs after S2 and is due to blood slushing around in a large dilated ventricle) 1,2
      • S4 ‘atrial gallop’ (occurs before S1 and is due to blood entering the ventricle during atrial systole hitting the stiff hypertrophied ventricular wall 1,2
    • pulsus alternans 1,2
  • right-predominant symptoms and signs
    • nocturia 1,2
    • sacral and scrotal oedema, especially if bed bound 1,2
    • peripheral (ankle) oedema 1,2
    • ascites 1,2
    • hepatomegaly, may have a tender edge and gastrointestinal symptoms 1,2
    • raised jugular venous pressure 1,2

The severity of clinical presentation and functional status of a patient is often classified according to the New York Heart Association (NYHA), which assigns a grade between I (normal) and IV (severe) depending on how limited the physical activity has become 1,2. Patients with end-stage CCF may have Cheyne-Stokes respiration, hypotension, tachycardia, features of valvulopathies, and cardiac cachexia 1,2

Depending on the underlying aetiology, additional clinical features may also be present 1,2

It may be precipitated by intrinsic cardiac or extrinsic factors. It may also be acute (acute decompensated cardiac failure) or chronic (chronic congestive cardiac failure) 1,2. Up to 40-50% of patients have diastolic heart failure with preserved left ventricular function 4

There are numerous ways of classifying CCF, the most commonly utilised being a functional classification that is based on cardiac output and ejection fraction 1,2. In this classification, there are often overlapping aetiologies and patients can move from one classification to the other over time 1,2.

The accuracy of interpreting chest radiographs regarding congestive cardiac failure was only around 70% according to one study 5.  

With left-sided congestive cardiac failure, the features are that of pulmonary oedema which includes 1,2,4-8:

Echocardiography is the most common imaging modality used to evaluate patients with CCF 1,2. It is able to provide a semi-quantitative assessment of left ventricular size and function, and determine the presence of valvular or wall abnormalities 1,2

CT chest may demonstrate the same features as the plain radiograph, but in greater detail and clarity 6,7,9. Furthermore, electrocardiograph-gated CT and cardiac CT angiography may provide estimates of cardiac function and detailed visualisation of various cardiac structures 9. Mediastinal lymph node enlargement may be present in some cases 13,14.

Cardiac MRI (CMR) is able to provide highly accurate ejection fraction estimates and determine presence of any structural abnormalities, and is considered by many to be the gold standard imaging modality 2,9-11. Patterns of late gadolinium enhancement can distinguish between many aetiologies of CCF, although this is beyond the scope of this general article on CCF 10,11.

Treatment involves a multidisciplinary team and incorporates lifestyle, allied health, pharmacological, and even surgical therapies, often specific to the underlying aetiology 1,2. An in-depth review of the treatment of CCF is beyond the scope of this article, however general principles include:

  • treatment of comorbidities and complications (e.g. obesity, hypertension, depression, etc.) 1,2
  • lifestyle interventions: education, cessation of smoking and alcohol consumption, increase in isotonic exercise, improve diet, daily home weights 1,2
  • pharmacotherapy: 
    • mortality benefit: angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, combination angiotensin receptor-neprilysin inhibitors, beta-blockers (only carvedilol, bisoprolol, metoprolol succinate, nebivolol), spironolactone 1,2,12
      • these medications only have a benefit in patients with HFrEF, there are no medications with a mortality benefit in HFpEF (as of December 2017) 1,2
    • symptomatic benefit with no mortality benefit: other diuretics, nitrates, digoxin, hydralazine 1,2
  • surgery: considering implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, cardiac resynchronisation therapy, ventricular assist devices, and even cardiac transplant, depending on severity and aetiology 1,2

Despite advances in management in recent decades, prognosis remains poor with 30-40% of patients dying within 1 year, and up to 70% dying within 5 years 1.

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Article information

rID: 41895
System: Cardiac, Chest
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • Congestive cardiac failure
  • Congestive cardiac failure (CCF)
  • Congestive heart failure

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