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What is Heart Failure?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Heart failure is a heart condition characterized by an inability to circulate as much blood as the body needs. In right side heart failure, the heart is not pumping enough blood into the lungs, while left side heart failure involves an inability to circulate blood to the rest of the body. It is not uncommon for both sides of the heart to be involved. This condition can also be classified as systolic, indicating a problem with pumping, or diastolic, where the heart has trouble filling with blood.

This condition can be chronic or acute. There are a number of causes including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy, and myocardial infarction. Patients usually notice a gradual onset of symptoms including fluid retention, shortness of breath, difficulty exercising, and irregular heart rate. A medical examination can reveal problems with the heart and a doctor can recommend diagnostic tests to learn more about what is happening inside the patient's body.

One of the hallmarks of heart failure is fluid retention. When the heart is not pumping enough blood to meet the body's needs, signals are sent to the kidneys to increase blood volume by retaining fluid. This leads to swelling of the extremities, known as edema, and can also result in the formation of ascites, pockets of fluid in the abdomen. People with this condition may notice that their fingers and toes become clubbed and swollen.

A cardiologist is usually consulted when a patient has heart failure. Diagnostic tests including blood tests, medical imaging, and stress tests can be used to assess heart function and to learn more about the patient's general level of health. This information will be discussed with the patient to develop a treatment plan. Some people can live for decades with heart failure, while others may need immediate medical intervention.

Treatments can include lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise modifications along with medications designed to reduce the load on the heart. Surgery may be recommended for some patients. Surgical treatments can include steps like cardiac transplants, where a failing heart is replaced with a healthy heart from a donor. Because surgery is highly invasive, other means are usually pursued first, and patients may need to demonstrate that they are ready to make permanent lifestyle changes after surgery before a surgeon will proceed.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1006296 — On Feb 26, 2022

Since my mom's bypass, she is dizzy a lot so they told us not to give her her lisinopril unless her top number was over 110. It hasn't helped. She's still dizzy. It's gotten so bad, we are in the ER as I speak. Could it be the metoprolol? Should she not take it either?

By StarJo — On Sep 24, 2011

After my mother-in-law had gastric bypass surgery, she developed sepsis. The doctors thought she might die. She made it through, but she now has heart failure because of it.

She will probably live quite awhile longer, because she does everything she can to stay healthy. Her heart is just weak. She stood up too quickly a month ago, and she passed out, so she has to be careful.

I know she is glad to be skinny now, but heart failure is a big price to pay for improved looks. She tries so much harder now to eat well and exercise lightly, but it’s frustrating to know that she will never be strong again.

By orangey03 — On Sep 23, 2011

@OeKc05 - My grandmother has one of those pacemakers. It works on both of her ventricles, pacing or stimulating them as needed.

Her doctor told her that it is designed to fix electrical problems that cause heart failure. The pacemaker puts out electrical impulses that serve to make the heart pump correctly.

Since she is old and vulnerable, she could easily die if her heart beats too fast, so she has the type of pacemaker that also has a defibrillator. If her heart rate is too high, it will shock her heart, and its rhythm will slow down.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 22, 2011

I heard something on television about a type of pacemaker for people with heart failure, but I only caught the end of the program. I would like to know more about it, because I just found out I have heart failure.

It’s been really hard for me to exercise in the past few years. I just get out of breath doing the simplest things. I thought it was because I’m getting older, but it was much more serious than that.

I will be looking into this special kind of pacemaker. Has anyone here had any experience with it? I will appreciate anything you can tell me about it.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 21, 2011

A member of my church who is in his fifties was recently diagnosed with heart failure. He has been overweight for the entire twenty years that I’ve known him, and that has taken a toll on his heart.

His fingers always seem to be swollen, and he says he also has ascites of the abdomen. I can tell that his stomach looks tight, like a balloon about to rupture.

He seems to be all right most of the time. His wife worries that one day he will just fall over dead, though. He ‘s on medication for his condition, but he knows his time is probably limited.

By lonelygod — On Sep 20, 2011

@manykitties2 - I am sorry to hear about your mother's heart failure prognosis. My grandfather recently passed away from acute heart failure and all the treatment for heart failure he had just didn't help anymore.

I think that when people are younger they really have to stick with a good exercise routine and healthy diet to help prevent heart failure later in life. Of course, some heart failure is tough to avoid if you have a family history of it, but I feel better knowing that I am doing everything I can not to follow in my family's footsteps. I will keep up with my exercise and eating well, hopefully that will keep my heart healthy.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 20, 2011

My mother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and she found that her quality of life diminished very slowly over time. She first noticed shortness of breath, and it became really difficult for her to exert herself. Apparently that is one of the really early heart failure symptoms.

My mom's doctor gave her a ton of medication and she had to undergo a few bypass surgeries to help with blood flow in her body. She is doing a bit better, but I think all the treatments have merely extended her life a bit. We're all hoping that she won't go through chronic heart failure anytime soon.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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