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What is Heart Failure?

Friday 30 October 2020
Cardiovascular Disorders

Table of Contents


I. What is Heart Failure?

II.  Heart Failure Symptoms

III. Types of Heart Failure

a. Left-Sided Heart Failure

b. Right-Sided Heart Failure

c. Diastolic Heart Failure

d. Systolic Heart Failure

IV. Temporary Measures


What is Heart Failure?

Heart failure (also known as congestive heart failure) is a serious condition that affects more than six million Americans. [1] The condition is more common in men. However, when the condition is not treated, it is more likely to be fatal in women. [2]

While the term ‘heart failure’ may imply that the heart has stopped working completely, that is not the case: heart failure can mean that the heart is simply not functioning as it should be.

The heart is a vital muscle that pumps blood around the body to keep your organs healthy and functioning properly. However, when your heart becomes less efficient, it needs to work harder to maintain its ability to pump blood. Over time, working harder can overwhelm the heart, causing it to fail. Heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump a sufficient amount of blood to the organs. [3]

There are four chambers in the heart, split into two left chambers and two right chambers. The two upper chambers are atria, while the lower chambers are called ventricles. Blood enters the right atrium and flows to the right ventricle. The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs, where it will become oxygenated. Once this occurs, blood re-enters the heart through the left atrium and is then pumped around the body from the left ventricle. It then returns to the right atrium and the cycle begins again. [4]

A woman holding a pill and a glass of water

While there is typically no cure for heart failure, the condition can be managed through medications, allowing patients to continue living a full life. Common heart failure medications include Lasix (furosemide), Diovan (valsartan), and Aldactone (spironolactone). These medications can help improve the ability of the heart to pump blood and can reduce your heart rate.

Keep reading to learn more about heart failure, including the symptoms, causes, and treatments for the condition.

Heart Failure Symptoms

There are several different symptoms of heart failure. If you or anyone that you know experiences these symptoms, then you should seek medical assistance, even if the symptoms are mild. Common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling tired or fatigued or feeling weak in the arms and legs
  • Confusion, memory loss, feeling disorientated, or having impaired thinking
  • Chronic wheezing or coughing
  • Rapid weight gain or swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea [5]

An old man sitting on a bench, appearing tired

Types of Heart Failure

a. Left-Sided Heart Failure

Left-sided heart failure occurs when the left ventricle is not able to pump blood efficiently. The left ventricle is responsible for pumping oxygen-rich around the body. Left-sided heart failure is the most common form of heart failure. When this occurs, the body does not receive sufficient oxygenated blood and the blood can back up into the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath. [2]

b. Right-Sided Heart Failure

The role of the right ventricle is to pump blood into the lungs in order to get oxygen. The most common cause of right-sided heart failure is a build-up of blood in the lungs caused by left-sided heart failure. However, right-sided heart failure can occur on its own, caused by conditions such as lung disease. [2]

c. Diastolic Heart Failure

Diastolic heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to relax properly while pumping blood. If the heart does not relax, less blood is able to enter the heart. Diastolic heart failure is more common in women than men and results in less blood flowing to the other organs. [2] [6]

d. Systolic Heart Failure

Systolic heart failure occurs when the heart is not able to contract with enough force. Systolic heart failure can occur on either side of the heart and typically develops when the heart is weakened or enlarged. Systolic heart failure results in the heart pumping less oxygen-rich blood around your body. This type of heart failure is more common in men than in women. [2] [6]

Temporary Measures

Heart failure is a progressive condition that occurs when the heart is no longer able to meet its workload. When this occurs, the heart tries several different things in order to carry on:

Enlarged Heart: In order to pump blood to meet demand, your heart can stretch and gradually become enlarged. As it grows, it can hold a larger volume of blood and is able to contract more strongly, allowing it to pump more blood.

Increased Heart Mass: As well as the heart cells increasing in size, they also develop more muscle mass. This allows the heart to pump blood more strongly for a short time.

A graphic showing an enlarged heart caused by heart failure

Increased Speed: As the heart becomes weaker and less efficient, the muscle will attempt to counter this by beating quicker.

Narrowing Blood Vessels: Narrowed blood vessels increase your blood pressure and can be part of the cause of heart failure. However, once the heart does begin to fail, the blood vessels can also narrow in order to increase blood pressure further to compensate for the loss of strength of the heart.

Diversion of Blood: Another temporary fix can be for the body to divert blood away from less important tissues such as the arms and legs in order to supply the heart and brain. [6]

Although these measures are initially beneficial, if heart failure is not treated, these compensatory measures can contribute to the most severe cases of heart failure as they add extra stress to your cardiovascular system. [7]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.