To diagnose heart failure, your doctor will take a careful medical history, review your symptoms and perform a physical examination. Your doctor will also check for the presence of risk factors, such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease or diabetes.
Using a stethoscope, your doctor can listen to your lungs for signs of congestion. The stethoscope also picks up abnormal heart sounds that may suggest heart failure. The doctor may examine the veins in your neck and check for fluid buildup in your abdomen and legs.
After the physical exam, your doctor may also order some of these tests:
Blood tests. Your doctor may take a blood sample to look for signs of diseases that can affect the heart. He or she may also check for a chemical called N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP) if your diagnosis isn’t certain after other tests.
Chest X-ray. X-ray images help your doctor see the condition of your lungs and heart. Your doctor can also use an X-ray to diagnose conditions other than heart failure that may explain your signs and symptoms.
Electrocardiogram (ECG). This test records the electrical activity of your heart through electrodes attached to your skin. It helps your doctor diagnose heart rhythm problems and damage to your heart.
Echocardiogram. An echocardiogram uses sound waves to produce a video image of your heart. This test can help doctors see the size and shape of your heart along with any abnormalities. An echocardiogram measures your ejection fraction, an important measurement of how well your heart is pumping, and which is used to help classify heart failure and guide treatment.
Stress test. Stress tests measure the health of your heart by how it responds to exertion. You may be asked to walk on a treadmill while attached to an ECG machine, or you may receive a drug intravenously that stimulates your heart similar to exercise.
Sometimes the stress test can be done while wearing a mask that measures the ability of your heart and lungs to take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. If your doctor also wants to see images of your heart while you’re exercising, he or she may use imaging techniques to visualize your heart during the test.
Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan. In a cardiac CT scan, you lie on a table inside a doughnut-shaped machine. An X-ray tube inside the machine rotates around your body and collects images of your heart and chest.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In a cardiac MRI, you lie on a table inside a long tubelike machine that produces a magnetic field, which aligns atomic particles in some of your cells. Radio waves are broadcast toward these aligned particles, producing signals that create images of your heart.
Coronary angiogram. In this test, a thin, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into a blood vessel at your groin or in your arm and guided through the aorta into your coronary arteries. A dye injected through the catheter makes the arteries supplying your heart visible on an X-ray, helping doctors spot blockages.
Myocardial biopsy. In this test, your doctor inserts a small, flexible biopsy cord into a vein in your neck or groin, and small pieces of the heart muscle are taken. This test may be performed to diagnose certain types of heart muscle diseases that cause heart failure.