Heart failure (HF) is a condition that occurs when the heart cannot pump or fill with enough blood, which means that the heart must work harder to deliver blood to the body. The term "heart failure" is misleading because the heart does not completely fail or stop. Heart failure can be mild and cause minor symptoms, or it may be severe or even life-threatening. The most common symptoms of heart failure are shortness of breath, feeling tired, leg swelling, and other signs of fluid retention.
Although heart failure is a serious condition, safe and effective treatments are available. Treatment can help you to feel better and live longer.
This article discusses the most common causes, symptoms, and treatment of heart failure. More detailed information about heart failure is available by subscription. (See "Evaluation of the patient with suspected heart failure" and "Evaluation of the patient with heart failure or cardiomyopathy" and "Overview of the therapy of heart failure due to systolic dysfunction".)
TYPES OF HEART FAILURE
The heart is composed of four chambers: the two upper chambers are the right and left atria, and the two lower chambers are the right and left ventricles (figure 1). The left ventricle plays a key role because it pumps blood to the entire body. In a person with heart failure, the heart cannot adjust to the body's changing need for oxygen (for example, when climbing stairs).
HEART FAILURE CAUSES
Heart failure is caused by a disease or condition that damages the heart. Fortunately, treating these conditions during the early stages can often prevent or slow development of heart failure. The most common causes of heart failure include:
High blood pressure (hypertension) — In people with high blood pressure, the heart must work harder to pump blood. This increased workload can, over time, lead to an enlarged heart that does not work well. (See "Patient information: High blood pressure in adults (Beyond the Basics)".)
Coronary heart disease — Coronary heart disease causes narrowing of the blood vessels that supply ("feed") the heart muscle, reducing the flow of blood through the vessels. As a result, portions of the heart muscle are deprived of oxygen (especially during exercise, when the body needs more blood supply and oxygen), and the heart does not perform its work as well. Coronary heart disease can also lead to a heart attack (also called a myocardial infarction), which causes permanent damage to the heart muscle. Coronary heart disease can cause heart failure when it impairs from function of the heart.
Heart valve disease — A number of conditions, including heart attack and aging, can damage the heart valves.
Some valves become both stenosed and regurgitant.
Cardiomyopathy — In cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle has been damaged, leading to an enlarged, poorly pumping heart. (See "Patient information: Dilated cardiomyopathy (Beyond the Basics)".)
HEART FAILURE SYMPTOMS
As the amount of blood pumped by the heart (the cardiac output) decreases, a variety of symptoms can develop.
- Weakness, lightheadedness, or dizziness
- Shortness of breath, which might require you to be less active or sleep with several pillows
- A rapid heart rate, even while resting
- Swelling in the lower legs and feet (edema) or in the abdomen (ascites) (see "Patient information: Edema (swelling) (Beyond the Basics)")
- Feeling tired quickly
HEART FAILURE DIAGNOSIS
Heart failure is diagnosed based upon your medical history, an exam, and a series of tests. These tests can tell your doctor how well your heart is working and can help determine the cause of your heart failure. Tests may include:
- Chest X-ray — A chest X-ray shows the size and shape of the heart and the large blood vessels in the chest. It also can show if there is fluid in the lungs.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) — An EKG provides a picture of the electrical activity that causes the heart to beat. An EKG may detect conditions, such as an abnormal heart rhythm or a previous heart attack that could cause heart failure.
- Echocardiogram — An echocardiogram uses ultrasound (high-frequency sound waves) to assess the size and function of the heart's chambers and the structure and function of the heart valves. A follow-up echocardiogram can be done to see if your heart function changes over time.
- Exercise testing — An exercise test ("stress test") determines how well your heart performs during exercise. It is one way to look for signs of a shortage of blood supply to your heart caused by blockages in the coronary arteries. A doctor or nurse will see how your heart responds to exercise by looking at the EKG, blood pressure, and heart rate as you walk on a treadmill. In addition, pictures may be taken to measure the effect of exercise on the heart.
- Heart (cardiac) catheterization — Cardiac catheterization helps to measure how well the heart is functioning and provides pictures of the coronary arteries to look for blockages. During the test, a thin tube (the catheter) is inserted through a large blood vessel in the groin (or arm) and advanced into the heart. A dye is injected into the catheter to view the arteries and the structure of the heart by X-ray.
- Other tests — Cardiac catheterization is an invasive test that can have risks. Other tests, like CT or MRI, are sometimes used to look at the coronary arteries. This type of test is recommended only in specific situations.
HEART FAILURE COMPLICATIONS
Heart failure can cause symptoms and make you feel ill. In addition, it can cause dangerous, even life-threatening complications. The goal of treatments for heart failure is to reduce symptoms and reduce the chance of developing complications. The most common complications include:
- A weakened and enlarged heart muscle (called cardiomyopathy)
- Irregular heart rhythms (called arrhythmias), which can lead to blood clots or even a stroke
- Heart attack
HEART FAILURE TREATMENT
In most people, heart failure is a chronic problem, meaning that it continues for months and years. Heart failure is generally treatable but rarely goes away completely. Treatment usually includes a combination of changes in your diet and lifestyle; medicines; and sometimes, a device to protect your heart from abnormal rhythms.
Diet and lifestyle — Changes in diet and lifestyle are often recommended to treat heart failure. The most common recommendations include:
- Decrease salt and water — Managing the amount of salt (sodium) in the foods you eat can help to keep heart failure under control. This usually means eating less than 2000 mg (2 grams) of sodium per day. Your doctor might give you more specific advice on sodium based on your condition. Low-sodium diets are discussed separately. (See "Patient information: Low sodium diet (Beyond the Basics)".)
The amount of fluid you drink is also important. People with severe heart failure should drink less than 2 liters (66 ounces) of fluid per day. This includes all fluids. Your doctor might give you more specific guidance on fluid limits based on your condition.
- Weigh yourself every day — To monitor your fluid levels, weigh yourself every day at the same time on the same scale (eg, in the morning after you urinate but before eating breakfast). Be sure to wear the same amount of clothing each time you weigh yourself. If your weight increases by 2 pounds (1 kilogram) in one day, call your doctor or nurse. Also, if your weight increases by 4 pounds (2 kg) in one week, call your doctor or nurse. Gaining weight suddenly is one sign that you may be retaining more fluid than you should be.
- Control your weight — If you are overweight, your heart must work harder to supply blood and oxygen to your body. Losing weight can help you to feel better and reduces the strain on your heart. On the other hand, losing a lot of weight quickly can be a sign of severe heart failure. For advice on weight management, talk to your doctor or nurse. (See "Patient information: Weight loss treatments (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Stop smoking — Cigarette smoking increases your risk of having a heart attack and can worsen heart failure. If you smoke, talk to your doctor or nurse to get help with quitting. (See "Patient information: Quitting smoking (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Limit alcohol — Drinking too much alcohol is not good for your heart or your health generally. People with heart failure should not drink more than one serving of alcohol per day (for women) or two servings per day (for men). One serving is 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine. If your heart failure is related to drinking too much, you should stop drinking alcohol completely. (See "Patient information: Alcohol use — when is drinking a problem? (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Cardiac rehab and exercise — Exercising most days of the week can help to reduce shortness of breath and fatigue, which are common problems in people with heart failure. Becoming more active can also help you to feel better. For exercise advice, talk to your doctor or nurse. They might recommend a cardiac rehab program to help you develop a safe exercise plan. (See "Patient information: Heart attack recovery (Beyond the Basics)", section on 'Cardiac rehabilitation after heart attack'.)
Medicines — Medicines are often used to treat heart failure symptoms; some medicines have even been proven to prolong life. It is very important to take these medicines on time every single day. If you cannot afford or have trouble taking your medicines, talk to your doctor or nurse.
Some of the most commonly prescribed medicines include:
- Diuretic — People with heart failure often develop swelling (or edema) in the legs and fluid in the lungs. Medicines called diuretics (also called water pills) help the body get rid of the excess fluid. (See "Patient information: Edema (swelling) (Beyond the Basics)".)
- ACE inhibitor or ARB — ACE inhibitors and ARBs widen blood vessels and lower blood pressure, making it easier for your heart to pump. ACE inhibitors can sometimes cause a dry cough, in which case an ARB may be preferred. These medications can help prolong life.
- Beta blocker — Beta blockers are a type of medicine that can slow the heart rate and decrease blood pressure. This medication can help prolong life.
- Blood thinner — People with heart failure who have an irregular heart rhythm have an increased risk of developing a blood clot. This can be treated with a medicine to help prevent blood clots, sometimes called a "blood thinner." The most commonly used medicines include warfarin (Coumadin®) and aspirin. (See "Patient information: Warfarin (Coumadin) (Beyond the Basics)".)
Heart rhythm treatment — In some people with heart failure, a life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm (a type of ventricular arrhythmia) can develop. To return the heart to a normal rhythm, your doctor might recommend a device that shocks the heart and returns it to a normal rhythm. The device is called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). It is implanted under the skin in your upper chest. (See "Patient information: Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (Beyond the Basics)".)
Another potential problem in people with heart failure is abnormal electrical conduction in the heart. This can cause the walls of the left ventricle to contract out of sync, making the heart work less efficiently. A special type of pacemaker, called cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) or biventricular pacing, can treat this problem. A device that includes both CRT and ICD is available, if needed. (See "Patient information: Pacemakers (Beyond the Basics)".)
Surgery or stenting — Surgery is sometimes recommended for people with heart failure who also have coronary heart disease or severe disease of the heart valves. This might include heart valve surgery or coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery or both. (See "Patient information: Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (Beyond the Basics)".)
In some cases, coronary heart disease can be treated with a coronary artery angioplasty or stent procedure. (See "Patient information: Heart stents and angioplasty (Beyond the Basics)".)
Treatment for advanced heart failure — Heart transplantation can be helpful for some people with severe heart failure that has not responded to other treatments. However, careful screening is required to ensure that heart transplantation is appropriate. In addition, the supply of hearts for transplant is limited, so most people must wait for months or even years before a heart is available. People who have a heart transplant are followed closely before and after surgery, since there are numerous risks. (See "Patient information: Heart transplantation (Beyond the Basics)".)
Your doctor might recommend a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) instead of transplantation OR while you wait for transplantation. These devices are implanted inside the chest and are designed to improve blood flow to the body when the heart pump is weakened. (See "Intermediate- and long-term mechanical cardiac support".)
HOW TO CARE FOR YOURSELF
Being diagnosed with heart failure can be frightening. There are a few basic guidelines that can help to manage your condition:
- Always take your medicines. Do not skip doses when you feel better. If you cannot afford your medicines, talk to your doctor or nurse.
- Try to eat foods without added salt. More information about reducing salt is available. (See "Patient information: Low sodium diet (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Look for signs that your heart failure is getting worse (see below).
When to seek help — Call 911 for help if the following occur:
- Severe shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort or pain that lasts more than 15 minutes and does not get better with rest or nitroglycerin
- Fainting or passing out
Call your doctor or nurse if you develop any of the following, which can be signs of worsening heart failure:
- Increasing or new shortness of breath
- New or worsened cough, especially if you are coughing up frothy or bloody material
- Worsened swelling in your legs or ankles
- Weight gain of 2 pounds (1 kilogram) in one day or 4 pounds (2 kg) in one week
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION
Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.
This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.
Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.
The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.
Patient information: Heart failure (The Basics)
Patient information: Swelling (The Basics)
Patient information: Dilated cardiomyopathy (The Basics)
Patient information: Medicines for heart failure (The Basics)
Patient information: Shortness of breath (dyspnea) (The Basics)
Patient information: ECG and stress test (The Basics)
Patient information: Nuclear heart testing (The Basics)
Patient information: Echocardiogram (The Basics)
Patient information: What can go wrong after a heart attack? (The Basics)
Patient information: Heart failure and atrial fibrillation (The Basics)
Patient information: Cardiac catheterization (The Basics)
Patient information: Cardiac resynchronization therapy (The Basics)
Patient information: High blood pressure emergencies (The Basics)
Patient information: Pleural effusion (The Basics)
Patient information: Sudden cardiac arrest (The Basics)
Patient information: Myocarditis (The Basics)
Patient information: Aortic dissection (The Basics)
Patient information: Tetralogy of Fallot (The Basics)
Patient information: Tricuspid regurgitation (The Basics)
Patient information: When your lungs fill with fluid (The Basics)
Patient information: Mitral stenosis in adults (The Basics)
Patient information: Diastolic heart failure (The Basics)
Patient information: Systolic heart failure (The Basics)
Patient information: Stress-induced cardiomyopathy (The Basics)
Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.
Patient information: High blood pressure in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Mitral regurgitation (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Dilated cardiomyopathy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Edema (swelling) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Low sodium diet (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Weight loss treatments (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Quitting smoking (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Alcohol use — when is drinking a problem? (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Heart attack recovery (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Warfarin (Coumadin) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Pacemakers (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Heart stents and angioplasty (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Heart transplantation (Beyond the Basics)
Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of diastolic heart failure
Epidemiology and causes of heart failure
Evaluation and management of asymptomatic left ventricular systolic dysfunction
Evaluation of the patient with suspected heart failure
Overview of the therapy of heart failure due to systolic dysfunction
Prognosis of heart failure
Treatment and prognosis of diastolic heart failure
Evaluation of the patient with heart failure or cardiomyopathy
Intermediate- and long-term mechanical cardiac support
The following organizations also provide reliable health information.
- National Library of Medicine
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- American Heart Association
(www.heartfailure.org, also available in Spanish)
- European Society of Cardiology