Illustration of heart

What Is Heart Failure? Symptoms and Contributing Factors

DECEMBER 05, 2022


Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. It is a common condition affecting about 6.2 million adults in the United States.

Here’s how the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute defines heart failure:

“Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, is a condition that develops when your heart doesn’t pump enough blood for your body’s needs. This can happen if your heart can’t fill up with enough blood. It can also happen when your heart is too weak to pump properly. The term ‘heart failure’ does not mean that your heart has stopped. However, heart failure is a serious condition that needs medical care.”

Heart failure can be acute (meaning it develops suddenly) or chronic (meaning it develops over time). It is most often caused by other medical conditions that negatively affect your heart. Some contributing conditions include high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary artery disease. In some cases, heart failure can be caused by a heart attack or other damage to the heart muscle.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of heart failure, it is important to see a doctor so you can receive treatment. Heart failure is a serious condition. It is not reversible, but with proper treatment, it is possible to manage the condition and improve your quality of life.

Keep reading to learn:

What Is Heart Failure?

When patients are told they have heart failure, it doesn’t mean the heart has stopped working. Heart failure is when the heart is unable to pump enough blood around the body. This can be because the heart muscle is too weak or because it is too slack or elastic.

Heart failure can affect the left side of the heart, the right side or both. According to the National Institute on Aging, “When heart failure affects the left side of the heart, the heart cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. When heart failure affects the right side of the heart, the heart cannot pump enough blood to the lungs, where it picks up oxygen.”

Left-sided heart failure is more common than right-sided or biventricular (both sides). When you have left-sided heart failure, it can be categorized as systolic or diastolic. If you have systolic heart failure, your heart has trouble contracting with each heartbeat. In diastolic heart failure, your heart is unable to relax normally between beats.

Right-sided heart failure often develops due to advanced left-sided heart failure. When the right ventricle is too weak to pump blood to the lungs, fluid builds up in the veins and can push into surrounding tissues. This can be evident if your legs, feet or abdomen are swollen.

Symptoms of Heart Failure

There are a variety of symptoms associated with heart failure, which can range from mild to severe. They may include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) when you exert yourself or lie down
  • Swelling (edema) in your legs, ankles and feet
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Persistent cough or wheezing with white or pink blood-tinged phlegm
  • Swelling of your abdomen (ascites)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Chest pain

Because heart failure symptoms can mimic other conditions — some emergent, like a heart attack — it’s important to see your provider right away if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms.

What Causes Heart Failure?

There is no single cause of heart failure. Most often, it is the result of added strain on the heart brought on by other conditions, infections or illnesses. Some of the most common include:

High blood pressure. This is one of the most important contributing factors to heart failure. When your blood pressure is too high, it puts extra strain on your heart and can damage it over time.

Coronary artery disease. This condition occurs when the arteries that supply blood to your heart become blocked or narrowed. This can lead to a heart attack, which can damage or weaken your heart muscle.

Diabetes. Diabetes can damage your blood vessels and nerves, making them less able to carry signals from your brain to your heart. This can make it harder for your heart to pump blood properly.

Heart inflammation. Heart inflammation can be caused by viral or bacterial infections or an autoimmune disorder. When the heart becomes inflamed, the added strain can lead to heart failure.

Sleep apnea. This sleep disorder can cause you to stop breathing for short periods of time during the night. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that gets to your heart and make it work harder than normal.

How Is Heart Failure Diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose heart failure based on symptoms, test results and a physical exam that includes your medical history. Make sure to be candid about any symptoms you’re experiencing, especially if they are new or worsening.

Writing down your symptoms or tracking them in a mobile app can help you be prepared to discuss them with your doctor.

Since heart failure symptoms mimic other conditions, your doctor may order diagnostic tests to help determine if heart failure is the cause. Tests can include:

  • Echocardiogram (echo). This measures your heart’s ejection fraction (or the percentage of blood in the lower left chamber of your heart that is pumped out with each beat).
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG). This tests your heart’s electrical activity.
  • A stress test. This is used to measure how well your heart handles physical activity.

Your doctor may also order other imaging tests or scans like a CT, MRI or nuclear heart scan, along with blood tests. All of these are designed to give your provider a clear picture of your heart’s health.

Treating Heart Failure

There is no cure for heart failure. But that doesn’t mean you need to throw up your hands and give in to a heart failure diagnosis. There are a variety of medications, therapies and lifestyle changes that can help you live well with heart failure.

Medications. Pharmacological interventions used to treat heart failure include angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors), beta-blockers and diuretics. These drugs work by helping to improve blood flow and reduce congestion and fluid retention.

Implantable devices such as a biventricular pacemaker (cardiac resynchronization therapy or CRT) and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) may be recommended if your heart failure worsens. CRT helps to improve heart function by coordinating the contractions of the ventricles, while ICDs can help to prevent sudden cardiac death.

Lifestyle changes. Making changes to your lifestyle may be one of the most important and significant determinants of whether or not you can thrive after a heart failure diagnosis.

Your doctor will make recommendations based on your test results and symptoms. These often include limiting fluid intake, cutting back on alcohol and adhering to a heart-healthy diet. Reducing the amount of salt in your diet is one of the most important lifestyle changes heart failure patients can make. The Salt Substitute and Stroke Study (SSaSS) found replacing salt with a salt substitute led to a reduced risk of stroke, major cardiovascular events and death from any cause.

Exercise, weight loss and stress management are also key to keeping your heart functioning and reducing the risk of further heart damage.

Resources to Help Manage Heart Failure

A heart failure diagnosis can be overwhelming and hard to wrap your head around. Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate heart failure alone. In fact, one of the key determining factors for those who have learned to live well with heart failure is their willingness to seek out support and resources from their health care team, other patients and supportive family and friends. We’ve gathered a few resources to give you a start.

Your health care team. Your cardiologist, nurses and other members of your health care team are your first line of defense when it comes to managing heart failure. They can provide you with information about your condition and how to best manage it. They can also connect you with other resources, such as support groups or educational materials.

Online resources. There is a wealth of information available to heart-failure patients online. Make sure you are going to trusted, reputable sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The American Heart Association and the Heart Failure Society of America. There, you’ll be able to access new research, articles for patients and caregivers, and information about advocacy.

Apps. Tracking and monitoring your symptoms, diet and exercise is essential when managing heart failure. The Cormeum app was developed by a heart-failure nurse for heart-failure patients. Cormeum is tailored to track the metrics that are important for heart-failure patients, like sodium levels. You can easily search for sodium levels of different foods in the app, eliminating guessing or Googling. Cormeum also allows you to share data with your provider easily.

Family and friends. A solid social network is crucial for heart-failure patients as they learn to live well with heart failure. Supportive family and friends can encourage healthy habits and offer encouragement to boost your spirits in moments of despair. If you don’t currently have a support network (or if you’re looking for more), check out online resources available through The American Heart Association or membership groups like The Mended Hearts. You can also ask your provider to recommend local support groups for heart-failure patients.

In Conclusion

Heart failure is a serious medical condition that should not be taken lightly. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms listed in this article, it is crucial to seek medical help immediately. While many factors can contribute to heart failure, making lifestyle changes, working with a doctor and seeking out social support makes it possible to live and thrive with heart failure.