When you hear the term “heart failure,” you may be confused and think it means your heart has stopped beating, but this is not the case. However, heart failure is a serious condition in which the heart muscle is not able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs for oxygen and nutrients that are delivered by the bloodstream.
Your heart is a muscle with two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles). These heart chambers squeeze and expand precisely to push blood to your body and lungs. The blood your heart pushes to your body carries vital oxygen and nutrients to your body’s tissues and organs. The blood that is pushed to the lungs picks up oxygen in the lungs and then returns to the heart to be pumped out to the body to provide oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. In heart failure, the left ventricle (main pumping chamber) pumps blood to the body, the right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen, or both ventricles may lose their ability to pump blood effectively. However, in most cases, the left ventricle is the first chamber to fail, which can be described as systolic or diastolic. In systolic heart failure, the heart’s left ventricle is weak and cannot pump enough blood to the body during systole or when the chamber contracts. In diastolic heart failure, the passive and active processes to fill the heart with blood for the next pumping cycle are impaired. Heart failure can often be a combination of systolic and diastolic problems.
You may have also heard the term “congestive heart failure.” When the heart cannot pump and fill efficiently, it can cause blood to back up into the lungs, creating fluid buildup. Since the kidneys are very sensitive and require good blood flow to them, when they are impaired, enough urine cannot be made. This can cause an imbalance of fluids in the body, extra fluid buildup, or “congestion,” which can result in tissue swelling, such as in the legs, a persistent cough, or difficulty in breathing.
Heart failure categories
While there are many causes of heart failure, the condition can be described by two basic categories:
- Ischemic heart failure – Caused by blocked blood flow
- Nonischemic heart failure – Caused by problems other than blocked blood flow
In many cases, heart failure is a progressive disease. However, many therapies, including medications and/or procedures, have been shown to improve outcomes in patients with heart failure. If you’ve been diagnosed with heart failure, proper treatment, lifestyle changes, and careful management can help you improve your symptoms, slow the disease’s progression, and have the best possible quality of life for many years.