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Heart Failure

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart has lost the ability to pump enough blood to the body's tissues. With too little blood being delivered, the organs and other tissues do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to function properly.


According to the American Heart Association, about4.9 million Americans are living with congestive heart failure. Of these, 2.5 million are males and 2.4 million are females. Ten people out of every 1,000 people over age 65 have this condition. There are about 400,000 new cases each year.

Heart failure happens when a disease affects the heart's ability to deliver enough blood to the body's tissues. Often, a person with heart failure may have a buildup of fluid in the tissues, called edema. Heart failure with this kind of fluid buildup is called congestive heart failure. Where edema occurs in the body depends on the part of the heart that is affected by heart failure. Heart failure caused by abnormality of the lower left chamber of the heart (left ventricle) means that the left ventricle cannot pump blood out to the body as fast as it returns from the lungs. Because blood cannot get back to the heart, it begins to back up in the blood vessels of the lungs. Some of the fluid in the blood is forced into the breathing space of the lungs, causing pulmonary edema. A person with pulmonary edema has shortness of breath, which may be acute and severe and life threatening. A person with congestive heart failure feels tired because not enough blood circulates to supply the body's tissues with the oxygen and nutrients they need. Abnormalities of the heart structure and rhythm can also be responsible for left ventricular congestive heart failure.

In right-sided heart failure, the lower right chamber of the heart (right ventricle) cannot pump blood to the lungs as fast as it returns from the body through the veins. Blood then engorges the right side of the heart and the veins. Fluid backed up in the veins is forced out into the tissues, causing swelling (edema), usually in the feet and legs. Congestive heart failure of the right ventricle is often caused by abnormalities of the heart valves and lung disorders.

When the heart cannot pump enough blood, it tries to make up for this by becoming larger. By becoming enlarged (hypertrophic) the ventricle can contract more strongly and pump more blood. When this happens, the heart chamber becomes larger and the muscle in the heart wall becomes thicker. The heart also compensates by pumping more often to improve blood output and circulation. The kidneys try to compensate for a failing heart by retaining more salt and water to increase the volume of blood. This extra fluid can also cause edema. Eventually, as the condition worsens over time these measures are not enough to keep the heart pumping enough blood needed by the body. Kidneys often weaken under these circumstances, further aggravating the situation and making therapy more difficult.

For most people, heart failure is a chronic disease with no cure. However, it can be managed and treated with medicines and changes in diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits. Heart transplantation is considered in some cases.

Causes and symptoms

The most common causes of heart failure are:

  • coronary artery disease and heart attack (which may be "silent")
  • cardiomyopathy
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • heart valve disease
  • congenital heart disease
  • alcoholism and drug abuse

The most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease. In coronary artery disease, the arteries supplying blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked. When blood flow to an area of the heart is completely blocked, the person has a heart attack. Some heart attacks go unrecognized. The heart muscle suffers damage when its blood supply is reduced or blocked. If the damage affects the heart's ability to pump blood, heart failure develops.

Cardiomyopathy is a general term for disease of the heart muscle. Cardiomyopathy may be caused by coronary artery disease and various other heart problems. Sometimes the cause of cardiomyopathy cannot be found. In these cases the heart muscle disease is called idiopathic cardiomyopathy. Whatever the cause, cardiomyopathy can weaken the heart, leading to heart failure.

High blood pressure is another common cause of heart failure. High blood pressure makes the heart work harder to pump blood. After a while, the heart cannot keep up and the symptoms of heart failure develop.

Defects of the heart valves, congenital heart diseases, alcoholism, and drug abuse cause damage to the heart that can all lead to heart failure.

A person with heart failure may experience the following:

  • shortness of breath
  • frequent coughing, especially when lying down
  • swollen feet, ankles, and legs
  • abdominal swelling and pain
  • fatigue
  • dizziness or fainting
  • sudden death

A person with left-sided heart failure may have shortness of breath and coughing caused by the fluid buildup in the lungs. Pulmonary edema may cause the person to cough up bubbly phlegm that contains blood. With right-sided heart failure, fluid build-up in the veins and body tissues causes swelling in the feet, legs, and abdomen. When body tissues, such as organs and muscles, do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients they cannot function as well, leading to tiredness and dizziness.


Diagnosis of heart failure is based on:

  • symptoms
  • medical history
  • physical examination
  • chest x ray
  • electrocardiogram (ECG; also called EKG)
  • other imaging tests
  • cardiac catheterization

A person's symptoms can provide important clues to the presence of heart failure. Shortness of breath while engaging in activities and episodes of shortness of breath that wake a person from sleep are classic symptoms of heart failure. During the physical examination, the physician listens to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope for telltale signs of heart failure. Irregular heart sounds, "gallops," a rapid heart rate, and murmurs of the heart valves may be heard. If there is fluid in the lungs a crackling sound may be heard. Rapid breathing or other changes in breathing may also be present. Patients with heart failure may also have a rapid pulse.

By pressing on the abdomen, the physician can feel if the liver is enlarged. The skin of the fingers and toes may have a bluish tint and feel cool if not enough oxygen is reaching them.

A chest x ray can show if there is fluid in the lungs and if the heart is enlarged. Abnormalities of heart valves and other structures may also be seen on chest x ray.

An electrocardiogram gives information on the heart rhythm and the size of the heart. It can show if the heart chamber is enlarged and if there is damage to the heart muscle from blocked arteries.

Besides chest x ray, other imaging tests may help make a diagnosis. Echocardiography uses sound waves to make images of the heart. These images can show if the heart wall or chambers are enlarged and if there are any abnormalities of the heart valves. An echocardiogram can also be used to find out how much blood the heart is pumping. It determines the amount of blood in the ventricle (ventricular volume) and the amount of blood the ventricle pumps each time it beats (called the ejection fraction). A healthy heart pumps at least one-half the amount of blood in the left ventricle with each heartbeat. Radionuclide ventriculography also measures the ejection fraction by imaging with very low doses of an injected radioactive substance as it travels through the heart.

Cardiac catheterization involves using a small tube (catheter) that is inserted through a blood vessel into the heart. It is used to measure pressure in the heart and amount of blood pumped by the heart. This test can help find abnormalities of the coronary arteries, heart valves, and heart muscle, and other blood vessels. Combined with echocardiography and other tests, cardiac catheterization can help find the cause of heart failure. It is not always necessary, however.


Heart failure usually is treated with lifestyle changes and medicines. Sometimes surgery is needed to correct abnormalities of the heart or heart valves. Heart transplantation is a last resort to be considered in certain cases.

Dietary changes to maintain proper weight and reduce salt intake may be needed. Reducing salt intake helps to lessen swelling in the legs, feet, and abdomen. Appropriate exercise may also be recommended, but it is important that heart failure patients only begin an exercise program with the advice of their doctors. Walking, bicycling, swimming, or low-impact aerobic exercises may be recommended. There are good heart rehabilitation programs at most larger hospitals.

Other lifestyle changes that may reduce the symptoms of heart failure include stopping smoking or other tobacco use, eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption, and not using harmful drugs.

One or more of the following types of medicines may be prescribed for heart failure:

  • diuretics
  • digitalis
  • vasodilators
  • beta blockers
  • angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors)
  • angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs)
  • calcium channel blockers

Diuretics help eliminate excess salt and water from the kidneys by making patients urinate more often. This helps reduce the swelling caused by fluid buildup in the tissues. Digitalis helps the heart muscle to have stronger pumping action. Vasodilators, ACE inhibitors, ARBs, and calcium channel blockers lower blood pressure and expand the blood vessels so blood can move more easily through them. This action makes it easier for the heart to pump blood through the vessels.

Surgery is used to correct certain heart conditions that cause heart failure. Congenital heart defects and abnormal heart valves can be repaired with surgery. Blocked coronary arteries can usually be treated with angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery.

With severe heart failure, the heart muscle may become so damaged that available treatments do not help. Patients with this stage of heart failure are said to have end-stage heart failure. Heart transplant is usually considered for patients with end-stage heart failure when all other treatments have stopped working.


Most patients with mild or moderate heart failure can be successfully treated with dietary and exercise programs and the right medications. Many people are able to participate in normal daily activities and lead relatively active lives.

Patients with severe heart failure may eventually have to consider heart transplantation. Approximately 50% of patients diagnosed with congestive heart failure live for five years with the condition. Women with heart failure usually live longer than men with heart failure.


Heart failure is usually caused by the effects of some type of heart disease. The best way to try to prevent heart failure is to eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise, but many causes of heart failure cannot be prevented. People with risk factors for coronary disease (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels) should work closely with their physician to reduce their likelihood of heart attack and heart failure.

Heart failure sometimes can be avoided by identifying and treating any conditions that might lead to heart disease. These include high blood pressure, alcoholism, and coronary artery disease. Regular blood pressure checks and obtaining immediate medical care for symptoms of coronary artery disease, such as chest pain, will help to get these conditions found and treated early, before they can damage the heart muscle.

Finally, diagnosing and treating heart failure before the heart becomes severely damaged can improve the prognosis. With proper treatment, many patients may continue to lead active lives for a number of years.



Bellenir, Karen, and Peter D. Dresser, eds. Cardiovascular Diseases and Disorders Sourcebook. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1995.

Texas Heart Institute. Heart Owner's Handbook. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996.


American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300. <http://www.americanheart.org>.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222. <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov>.

Texas Heart Institute. Heart Information Service. PO Box 20345, Houston, TX 77225-0345. <http://www.tmc.edu/thi>.

Toni Rizzo


Angioplasty—A technique for treating blocked coronary arteries by inserting a catheter with a tiny balloon at the tip into the artery and inflating it.

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor—A drug that relaxes blood vessel walls and lowers blood pressure.

Arrhythmias—Abnormal heartbeat.

Atherosclerosis—Buildup of a fatty substance called a plaque inside blood vessels.

Calcium channel blocker—A drug that relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.

Cardiac catheterization—A diagnostic test for evaluating heart disease; a catheter is inserted into an artery and passed into the heart.

Cardiomyopathy—Disease of the heart muscle.

Catheter—A thin, hollow tube.

Congenital heart defects—Abnormal formation of structures of the heart or of its major blood vessels present at birth.

Congestive heart failure—A condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to supply the body's tissues with sufficient oxygen and nutrients; back up of blood in vessels and the lungs causes build up of fluid (congestion) in the tissues.

Coronary arteries—Arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle.

Coronary artery bypass—Surgical procedure to reroute blood around a blocked coronary artery.

Coronary artery disease—Narrowing or blockage of coronary arteries by atherosclerosis.

Digitalis—A drug that helps the heart muscle to have stronger pumping action.

Diuretic—A type of drug that helps the kidneys eliminate excess salt and water.

Edema—Swelling caused by fluid buildup in tissues.

Ejection fraction—A measure of the portion of blood that is pumped out of a filled ventricle.

Heart valves—Valves that regulate blood flow into and out of the heart chambers.

Hypertension—High blood pressure.


Idiopathic cardiomyopathy—Cardiomyopathy without a known cause.

Pulmonary edema—Buildup of fluid in the tissue of the lungs.

Vasodilator—Any drug that relaxes blood vessel walls.

Ventricles—The two lower chambers of the heart.

Additional topics

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