A ‘failed’ heart doesn’t pump enough blood for the body

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart doesn’t pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. It “fails” at what it is supposed to do, but this does not mean it has stopped beating.

Heart failure can be left or right side, or both. The two types are:

  • Systolic—referring to the lack of pressure or force of the heart to pump sufficient amounts of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body
  • Diastolic—referring to the lack of stiffness or lack of “relaxation” of the ventricles (lower heart chambers), thus preventing blood from entering the heart during normal contractions

If heart failure causes blood to get backed up (congested) in the liver, legs, lungs and abdomen, this is called congestive heart failure.

The most common causes of heart failure are other conditions, such as coronary artery disease (CAD), diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, all of which put strain on and may contribute to weakening or stiffening of the heart.

Symptoms and diagnosis of heart failure

Many of the symptoms are similar to those of other conditions, such as fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath, fluid retention in the legs, ankles or feet, and loss of appetite and nausea.

However, there are some symptoms that require immediate medical attention, including:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up pink, foamy mucus
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat that accompanies shortness of breath, fainting or chest pain
  • Sudden, severe shortness of breath

If you have any of these emergency symptoms, please call 911 immediately.

Testing and diagnosis of heart failure

If you are at risk, your doctor may already be monitoring your condition. To get an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. He or she may also recommend a blood test, chest X-ray, CT scan or MRI. You may also undergo additional testing, such as:

If you are diagnosed, treatment often includes preventive approaches, such as changes in diet and lifestyle, such as quitting smoking, reducing blood pressure, and managing your weight. Heart failure is also treated with medication, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and beta blockers, as well as with implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICD), similar to a pacemaker. For some patients, certain types of surgery may be recommended, such as coronary bypass surgery, heart valve repair or replacement, and possibly, heart transplant.

To schedule an appointment with a Lankenau Heart Institute specialist, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.