Heart Failure: Diagnosis

University's Advanced Heart Failure Center

1350 Walton Way
Augusta, GA 30901-2629
Phone: 706-774-7855 
Fax. 706-364-0516 
Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.


Doctors can often make a preliminary diagnosis of heart failure by medical history and careful physical examination.

A thorough medical history may identify risks for heart failure that include:

  • Heart Failure: High Blood PressureHigh blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease or history of heart attack
  • Thyroid problems
  • Obesity
  • Lifestyle factors (such as smoking, alcohol use, and drug use)
  • Family history of dilated cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle)
  • The following physical signs, along with medical history, strongly suggest heart failure:
  • Enlarged heart
  • Abnormal heart sounds
  • Abnormal sounds in the lungs
  • Swelling or tenderness of the liver
  • Fluid retention in legs and abdomen
  • Elevation of pressure in the veins of the neck

Laboratory Tests

Both blood and urine tests are used to check for problems with the liver and kidneys and to detect signs of diabetes. Lab tests can include:

  • Complete blood counts to check for anemia.
  • Blood and urine tests to check kidney function.
  • Sodium, potassium, and other electrolyte levels.
  • Cholesterol and lipid levels.
  • Blood sugar (glucose) levels.
  • Thyroid function.
  • Brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) levels. BNP is a hormone that increases during heart failure. BNP testing can be very helpful in correctly diagnosing heart failure in patients who come to the emergency room complaining of shortness of breath (dyspnea).

Electrocardiogram

An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a test that measures and records the electrical activity of the heart. It is also called an EKG. An ECG cannot diagnose heart failure. But it may indicate underlying heart problems. The test is simple and painless to perform. It may be used to diagnose:

  • Previous heart attack.
  • Abnormal cardiac rhythms.
  • Enlargement of the heart muscle, which may help to determine long-term outlook.
  • A finding called a prolonged QT interval may indicate people with heart failure who are at risk for severe complications and therefore need more aggressive therapies or medication adjustments.

The electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG) is used extensively to diagnose heart disease, from congenital heart disease in infants to myocardial infarction and myocarditis in adults. There are several different types of electrocardiograms.

Echocardiography

The best diagnostic test for heart failure is echocardiography. Echocardiography is a noninvasive test that uses ultrasound to image the heart as it is beating. Cardiac ultrasounds provide the following information:

  • Evaluations of valve function
  • Information about how well the heart is pumping, especially a measurement called left ventricle ejection fraction (LVEF)
  • Information about how well the heart relaxes (fills) with blood
  • Type of heart failure
  • Changes in the structure of the heart that may be a result of heart failure

Doctors use information from the echocardiogram for calculating the EF (how much blood is pumped out during each heartbeat), which is important for determining the severity of heart failure. Stress echocardiography may be needed if coronary artery disease is suspected.

Angiography

Doctors may recommend angiography if they suspect that blockage of the coronary arteries is contributing to heart failure. This procedure is invasive.

  • A thin tube called a catheter is inserted into one of the large arteries in the arm or leg.
  • It is gently guided through the artery until it reaches the heart.
  • The catheter measures internal blood pressure at various locations, giving the doctor a picture of the extent and severity of the heart failure.
  • Dye is then injected through the tube into the heart.
  • X-rays called angiograms are taken as the dye moves through the heart and arteries.
  • These images help locate problems in the heart's pumping action or blockage in the arteries.

Radionuclide Ventriculography

Radionuclide ventriculography is an imaging technique that uses a tiny amount of radioactive material (called a trace element). It is very sensitive in revealing heart enlargement or evidence of fluid accumulation around the heart and lungs. It is an accurate way to measure the EF, although an echocardiogram is a much more common way to do this.

Other Imaging Tests

Chest x-rays can show whether the heart is enlarged. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may also be used to evaluate the heart valves and arteries. Myocardial PET scans may be performed on certain patients to evaluate blood flow to the heart muscle.

Exercise Stress Test

The exercise stress test measures heart rate, blood pressure, and electrocardiographic changes while a patient is performing physically, usually walking on a treadmill. It can help determine heart failure symptoms. Doctors also use exercise tests to evaluate long-term outlook and the effects of particular treatments. A stress test may be done using echocardiography or may be done with nuclear imaging (called myocardial perfusion imaging).