Diagnosis and treatment of heart failure

Heart failure diagnosis

Many heart failure diagnosis’s start with a conversation about heart failure symptoms to a doctor

If you have previously had a heart attack, your doctor is likely to arrange an urgent appointment for you with a specialist (a cardiologist) who can conduct further tests; this is just because of your previous heart history1. Those with no previous history are likely to undergo some simple tests with their doctor before being referred to a specialist1. This would be expected to take a little longer than an urgent appointment1.


How is heart failure diagnosed?

Diagnosing a person with heart failure can be a long process. Many of the symptoms are non-specific, meaning they can be observed in other diseases, because of this your doctor has to conduct specific tests to make sure what you are experiencing is heart failure1. It is usually a generalist doctor (the one you would be likely to see at your local clinic) who will kick start the diagnosis process and from there they will refer you to a specialist1. The heart is a complicated organ and getting a heart failure diagnosis may take some time because other conditions need to be ruled out too.

Doctors use a number of tools to diagnose heart failure, including2:

  • Physical examinations
  • Blood tests
  • Tracings
  • Scans of the heart
  • X-rays

A physical examination may include taking a pulse, blood pressure measurement or a breathing test among others tests that can help to indicate general health and signs of heart failure3.

A blood test can test for many things4. In this case, it can show if there is anything in your blood that could indicate heart failure as well as kidney and liver function4.


Tracings and scans of the heart:

An Electrocardiogram (ECG) is a painless test that measures the electrical activity of your heart. It shows whether your heart is beating too fast or too slow2. It is used to investigate symptoms of heart problems and can help detect cardiac conditions5.

An Echocardiogram is an ultrasound scan, which uses sound waves to create an image of the heart2. It is a painless procedure, which can show the size of the heart, how well it is pumping, and the condition of its valves2.

An X-ray is useful way of showing the size and the shape of the heart2.

If you feel you have not been given enough information about your heart failure diagnosis, ask for more!


Understanding treatment

Heart failure is a manageable condition, improving your diet, increasing exercise and managing your treatment with a doctor will help to reduce the strain on your heart, slowing down the progression of the condition6. Adopting a healthier lifestyle will often mean that a person with heart failure can continue to lead a normal life for as long as possible7.

Treatment options include7:

  • Medication
  • Lifestyle changes – a healthy diet, regular exercise and quitting smoking
  • Implanted devices – to help control heart rhythm
  • Surgery – such as a bypass or a heart transplant

Treatments for heart failure are a big part of managing the condition and help to compliment lifestyle changes; however, they are not a substitute for exercise, good diet and quitting smoking. It is very important to talk to your doctor about available treatment options. They can help you if you are having trouble taking your medicines or understanding when and how to take them6. In addition to talking to your doctor, here are some tips on managing your treatment plan:

  • Your body is precious so it’s important you know what you’re putting in it. Make sure you know what medications and treatments you are taking, this includes how often you need to take things and what they are used for. Use our guide to talking to a doctor to help make these conversations easier
  • You might have multiple medicines to take daily- this is okay. If you are feeling overwhelmed ask your doctor for help. You may find organising your medications in a pill dispenser, or leaving them by something you use every day like a toothbrush, helps you to manage taking them
  • It’s important to take your medications on time and as recommended. Try setting reminders on your mobile phone if you have one or on your calendar - it may help! Giving a loved one a copy of your medicine regime may also be handy in case you forget


1) NICE. Chronic heart failure in adults: management. Available here: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg108/ifp/chapter/diagnosis-of-heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018
2) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Heart failure. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018
3) Cardiology Advisor. Diagnosis of Heart Failure by History and Physical Examination. Available at: https://www.thecardiologyadvisor.com/cardiology/diagnosis-of-heart-failure-by-history-and-physical-examination/article/584315/. Last accessed August 2018
4) NHS. Examples blood tests. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/blood-tests/types/. Last accessed August 2018
5) NHS. Electrocardiogram. Available here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/electrocardiogram/. Last accessed August 2018
6) British Heart Foundation (BHF). Heart failure. Available here: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018
7) NHS Choices. Heart failure. Available here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-failure/. Last accessed July 2018