Your heart delivers oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the body’s cells—when this vital organ is not pumping as well as it should be, heart failure occurs.
Heart failure is a chronic condition in which the heart muscle cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs for blood and oxygen. There are two types of heart failure. In systolic heart failure the heart muscle is weakened so that it cannot pump out all the blood that has filled the heart in the interval after the last heart beat. In heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, the muscles of the heart can contract adequately, but they don’t relax fully after each beat. This limits the amount of blood that can fill the heart before the next beat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the United States every year. Signs of early heart disease include fatigue and shortness of breath—everyday activities such as walking or climbing stairs can become challenging.
Your heart tries to react to the failure in different ways using temporary measures to mask the problem. It stretches to contract and pump more blood, develops stronger, thicker heart muscle, and pumps faster. The body also tries to compensate by narrowing the blood vessels to keep blood pressure up and divert the blood away from “less important” organs and towards the heart and brain. Eventually, these temporary measures fail because the body cannot keep up. These mechanisms help explain why some people may not be aware of their condition for many years.
Heart Disease Symptoms
Heart disease symptoms depend on the type of heart disease, and they might be different for men and women. The Heart Failure Society of America developed a handy tool that goes by the acronym FACES to help people detect heart disease.
F = Fatigue. When the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs, the person will often get tired and drained.
A = Activity limitation. A person with heart failure struggles to perform normal activities such as walking or climbing stairs because shortness of breath occurs.
C = Congestion. Fluid accumulated in the lungs can cause coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulty.
E = Edema. When the heart does not pump with enough force, fluid accumulates in the ankles, legs, thighs, and abdomen—excess fluid can also cause rapid weight gain.
S = Shortness of breath. The fluid accumulated in the lungs makes it more difficult for carbon dioxide to be exchanged for fresh oxygen. This causes shortness of breath.
Other symptoms include chest pain, chest tightness, numbness, pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen, or back.
It is important to mention that, by themselves, these symptoms do not confirm a diagnosis of heart failure, but you should watch for signs of cardiovascular distress and discuss concerns with your doctor if you experience any of the conditions mentioned above. Additional symptoms might occur depending on the specific heart disease.
Congestive Heart Disease
Congestive heart disease, also known as congestive heart failure (CHF), is a chronic condition that affects the pumping force of your heart muscles. Congestive heart disease is a type of heart failure—it refers to the stage in which fluid accumulates around the heart and affects its pumping power.
You have four heart chambers: the right atrium, the right ventricle, the left atrium, and the left ventricle. The ventricles pump blood to your body’s organs, while the atria receive blood circulating back from your body. Congestive heart disease develops when your ventricles cannot pump enough blood to cover the volume of your body. Left-sided congestive heart failure is the most common type; it occurs when your left ventricle cannot properly pump blood to your body. As the disease progresses, fluid accumulates in your lungs making breathing difficult.
There are two kinds of left-sided heart failure:
Systolic heart failure: This disease occurs when the left ventricle fails to contract normally, reducing the power of the heart, which cannot push blood into circulation.
Diastolic heart failure: This disease happens when the muscle in the left ventricle becomes stiff because it can no longer relax. The result is that the heart cannot fill with blood between beats.
Right-sided heart failure, instead, occurs when the right ventricle struggles to pump blood to your lungs. Blood accumulates in your blood vessels, causing fluid retention in your lower extremities, abdomen, and other vital organs. It is possible to have left-sided and right-sided heart disease at the same time. When this happens, usually, the failure starts in the left side and expands to the right when the disease is left untreated. Congestive heart failure may result from other health conditions including:
- Hypertension: When your blood pressure is higher than normal, congestive heart disease might occur. One of the causes of hypertension is the narrowing of your arteries, which makes it hard for your blood to go through them.
- Coronary artery disease: Coronaries are the small arteries that supply blood to the heart. Cholesterol and other types of fatty substances can block the coronary arteries, causing the arteries to become narrow. This can result in a restriction of your blood flow and can damage your arteries.
- Valve conditions: Heart valves regulate blood flow through your heart by opening and closing to allow the passage of the blood through the chambers. If valves do not open and close properly, ventricles have to work harder to pump blood.
- Other conditions: Heart-related diseases can lead to congestive heart failure, but there are other unrelated conditions that may increase your risk. These include diabetes, thyroid disease, and obesity. Severe infections and allergies may also contribute to congestive heart failure.