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Rehab Insights is a weekly blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. Its goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

What to Know about Rehabilitation for Heart Failure

With American Heart Month in February, it’s an opportunity to learn more about what to do if your heart isn’t in top shape. One condition to know more about: heart failure, particularly as it relates to rehabilitation.  

According to the CDC, “Heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in your body.” The organization estimates that there are about 5.7 million people in the U.S. with the condition—and diseases like coronary heart disease and diabetes, as well as things like smoking and a lack of exercise can up your chances of developing it.   

But the condition is something that patients can learn to cope with, whether it is a new onset, known as acute, or ongoing, known as chronic, explains Danielle Struble-Fitzsimmons, DPT, PhD, the director of the Cardiopulmonary Program at Burke. And that’s where rehabilitation comes in: “During inpatient rehabilitation, patients learn how to manage this condition, and improve their overall physical and functional level so that they can maintain a safe and active lifestyle,” she says.

If you’ve never experienced it before though, it can feel overwhelming and intimidating. Here are a few things to know about rehabilitation for heart failure:

It’s a three-phrase process. “Cardiac rehabilitation occurs in three phases,” explains Struble-Fitzsimmons. “Phase I is the inpatient rehabilitation treatment. Phase II outpatient cardiac rehab is a 12-week program that includes physician monitored sessions of individualized aerobic exercises, as well as education and nutritional guidance. Phase III cardiac rehab is an outpatient maintenance program. All 3 phases are offered at Burke.”

Therapy doesn’t just focus on a single aspect. “Rehabilitative therapies focus on education, functional training, strengthening, balance, and endurance exercises,” she explains. Functional training might look like walking or climbing stairs and other activities of daily living like getting in and out of the shower or cooking; strength training might focus on weights or resistance bands, and balance training incorporates movements with standing activities, says Struble-Fitzsimmons. And to help up endurance, therapists might use technology and equipment, like the Nu-step machine or the treadmill, she says. 

You’ll be closely monitored. “During inpatient rehabilitation, patients are closely monitored to assess their body’s physical responses to exercise and activity,” explains Struble-Fitzsimmons. For example, therapists will regularly measure a patient’s blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation, she says—as well as check how much they are exerting themselves.

Education plays a big role. As an inpatient at Burke, patients take cardiac education classes every weekday, where they learn things like why it’s imperative to exercise, about medications they might be taking and how to use any assistive equipment they might need, as well as about the importance of nutrition and energy conservation, says Struble-Fitzsimmons.

Lean on your support system. Caregivers are an integral part of recovery and maintenance—and for patients with heart failure, caregivers are encouraged to provide social and emotional support, explains Struble-Fitzsimmons. “In addition, Burke offers formal caregiver training opportunities during the inpatient stay to properly train caregivers to provide safe physical assistance during functional activities like walking, stair climbing, or bathing,” she says.

Learn more about Burke’s cardiac rehabilitation program.

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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