What is heart failure?

The heart is a muscle that pumps oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body, so when you have heart failure, the heart is not able to pump as well as it should. Blood and fluid may back up into the lungs (congestive heart failure), and some parts of the body don’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to work normally.

Who’s affected?

In the United States, approximately 5.7 million patients over the age of 20 have heart failure, with 870,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of heart failure are:

  • Shortness of breath during rest, exercise, or while lying flat

  • Weight gain

  • Visible swelling of the legs and ankles (due to a buildup of fluid) and, occasionally, swelling of the abdomen

  • Fatigue and weakness

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal pain

  • Persistent cough that can cause blood-tinged sputum

What does heart failure do to the body?

Heart failure affects the body by interfering with the kidney's normal function of eliminating excess sodium and waste products. In congestive heart failure, the body retains more fluid, resulting in swelling of the ankles and legs. Fluid also collects in the lungs, which can cause shortness of breath, and these changes in the way the body handles fluid can also affect the kidneys and the liver.

What causes heart failure?

Heart failure may result from any or all of the following:

  • Heart valve disease caused by past rheumatic fever or other infections

  • High blood pressure

  • Active infections of the heart valves or heart muscle (for example, endocarditis or myocarditis)

  • Previous heart attack(s) (myocardial infarction) – scar tissue from prior damage may interfere with the heart muscle's ability to pump normally

  • Coronary artery disease (narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle)

  • Cardiomyopathy or another primary disease of the heart muscle

  • Congenital heart disease or defects (present at birth)

  • Cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)

  • Chronic lung disease and pulmonary embolism

How is heart failure treated?

Heart failure treatment is very individualized, as the cause of the heart failure will guide the treatment plan. If the heart failure is caused by a valve disorder, surgery may be performed to fix the valve. If the heart failure is caused by a disease, such as anemia, then the underlying disease will be treated. Although there is no cure for heart failure due to damaged heart muscle, many forms of treatment have been used to treat symptoms very effectively.

If you think you or someone you love may be experiencing symptoms of heart failure, talk to your doctor. To schedule a consultation with Dr. George Sokos in our heart failure clinic, call 855-WVU-CARE (855-988-2273). To learn more about the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute, visit WVUMedicine.org/heart.