About heart failure

Heart failure is a condition where the heart cannot pump blood around the body efficiently1. This is because the heart, a muscle that squeezes and relaxes with each heartbeat, becomes too weak or too stiff to work properly1. When this weakness or stiffness occurs, the heart can’t contract with enough force, or fill with enough blood and as a result, less blood is pumped around the body2. This can lead to problems in other parts of the body as the organs and muscles don’t receive enough oxygen and nutrients2.

The term ‘heart failure’ is perhaps in itself misleading. The heart has not stopped working; it just needs a little extra help1. Although it’s a long-term condition that cannot be cured (except in the case of heart transplant), making positive lifestyle changes can help people with heart failure to better manage their condition1.

You may have also heard heart failure referred to as congestive heart failure, but that term is not frequently used.

Symptoms of heart failure

The main symptoms of heart failure are3:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness
  • Swelling in the ankles, legs and abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sudden weight increase
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Impaired thinking, memory loss and feelings of disorientation

Click here for more information on what causes these heart failure symptoms.

Cause of heart failure

Heart failure occurs when other conditions and factors weaken or stiffen your heart; ultimately making it harder for you heart to pump blood around the body, these can include4:

  • Heart disease – occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become clogged up and can cause a heart attack (where blood supply to the heart suddenly stops) or angina (chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart)5
  • High blood pressure – also known as hypertension can be caused by poor diet, such as consuming too much salt, this can cause the heart to work harder to circulate blood. Over time this may make the heart stiff or weaker5

Diagnosis of heart failure

Doctors may use a number of tools to diagnose heart failure, including4:

  • Physical examinations
  • Blood tests
  • Tracings
  • Scans of the heart
  • X-rays

Learn more about these tools and tests here.

Treatment of heart failure

In the early stages of heart failure, symptoms are often minimal and people may not notice a significant effect on how they’re feeling. However, symptoms do progress so if you’re diagnosed with heart failure it’s really important you’re proactively managing the condition before things get worse6.

People with heart failure can often continue to lead normal lives for as long as possible by controlling the symptoms and slowing down the progression of the condition2.

Treatment options include1:

  • Medication – speak to a doctor about which is best for you
  • Lifestyle changes – such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and quitting smoking
  • Implanted devices – can help control heart rhythm
  • Surgery – such as a bypass or a heart transplant

It is important to talk to your doctor about available treatment options, as very often ways of managing the condition will change as it progresses4. Your doctor can help if you are having trouble taking your medicines or understanding when and how to take them.

More about understanding your treatment.

 

1) NHS Choices. Heart failure. Available here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-failure/ Last accessed July 2018
2) British Heart Foundation (BHF). Heart failure. Available here: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018
3) American Heart Association. Warning signs of heart failure. Available here: http://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/warning-signs-of-heart-failure. Last accessed July 2018
4) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Heart failure. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018
5) American Heart Association (AHA). Causes of heart failure. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/causes-and-risks-for-heart-failure/causes-of-heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018
6) American Heart failure. Advanced Heart Failure. Available at: http://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/living-with-heart-failure-and-managing-advanced-hf/advanced-heart-failure. Last accessed August 2018