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About Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs when your heart isn’t pumping enough blood to meet your body’s needs. As a result, fluid may build up in the legs, lungs, and in other tissues throughout the body.

Definition

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, is a condition or a collection of symptoms in which the heart isn't pumping enough blood to meet the body's needs.

Causes

Heart failure usually develops slowly after an injury to the heart. Some injuries may include a heart attack, too much strain on the heart due to years of untreated high blood pressure, or a diseased heart valve.

Common causes of heart failure include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Previous heart attack (myocardial infarction)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Valve disease
  • Congenital heart disease (condition you are born with)
  • Cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart)
  • Endocarditis
  • Myocarditis (infection of the heart)
  • Diabetes

Symptoms

Heart failure symptoms aren't always obvious. Some people in the very early stages of heart failure may have no symptoms at all. Others may dismiss symptoms like fatigue or shortness of breath as signs of growing older.

Sometimes, however, heart failure symptoms are more obvious. Because of the heart's inability to efficiently pump blood and supply your organs (such as the kidneys and the brain), you may experience a number of symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the feet and legs
  • Lack of energy, feeling tired
  • Difficulty sleeping at night due to breathing problems
  • Swollen or tender abdomen, loss of appetite
  • Cough with "frothy" mucus or phlegm
  • Increased urination at night
  • Confusion
  • Impaired memory

Risk Factors

Some people are more likely than others to develop heart failure. No one can predict for certain who will develop it, but there are known risk factors. Being aware of the risk factors and seeing a doctor for early treatment are good strategies for managing heart failure. Heart failure risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Enlargement of the heart (cardiomyopathy)
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Diabetes

Diagnosis

Only your doctor can tell if you have heart failure and how far the condition has progressed. Your doctor will review your medical history, including past and present illnesses, family history, and lifestyle. As part of your physical examination, the doctor will check your heart, lungs, abdomen, and legs to see if signs of heart failure are present.

To rule out or confirm the diagnosis of heart failure, your doctor may order one or several of these diagnostic tests:

  • Echocardiogram
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Chest x-ray
  • Exercise test (stress test)
  • Cardiac catheterization

If you have heart failure, your doctor may also track your ejection fraction over time. Ejection fraction is defined as the percentage of blood that is pumped out of the heart during each beat. It's a key indicator of your heart's health and is frequently used by doctors to determine how well your heart is functioning as a pump.

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Information on this site should not be used as a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.

Last updated: 2 Jul 2012

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