A healthy heart can pump blood to all parts of the body in a few seconds. When the heart can no longer do this, you have heart failure. Blood should be pumped out of the heart backs up in the lungs and other parts of the body. This causes symptoms of heart failure such as shortness of breath or swelling in the abdomen, hands, legs, and feet.
Many people with heart failure have fluid buildup in their lungs (congestion). So heart failure is often called CHF (congestive heart failure).
Heart failure can range from mild to severe. Most often the symptoms can be controlled with medicines, rest, and diet. When heart failure symptoms are found early and treatment is started a person with heart failure can lead a more normal life.
Many people with heart failure have an enlarged heart (cardiomegaly). This comes from years of the heart having to struggle to pump out the blood. With treatment, an enlarged heart can improve its pumping action.
For most, treatment includes daily medicines, rest, reducing stress, eating less salt, and often limiting fluids.
How a Healthy Heart Works
When the heart is pumping as it should, blood returns from the veins to the right upper chamber (atrium). From there, it goes to the right lower chamber (ventricle) and is pumped to the lungs. The blood then returns from the lungs to the left upper chamber (atrium), and then to the lower left chamber (ventricle) and is pumped through the main artery (aorta) to the body.
As heart failure gets worse, you may notice some or all of these:
- Sudden weight gain (3 to 4 lbs or more in 1 to 2 days or 2 lbs overnight)
- Swelling of the legs or ankles
- Swelling, bloating, or pain in the belly
- Trouble sleeping, unless propped up on 2 or more pillows (could be from problems other than heart failure)
- Shortness of breath (may be all of the time, with exertion or only when waking up breathless at night)
- Frequent, dry, hacking cough (most often when lying down)
- Loss of appetite (or nausea)
You may also get very tired from hardly any effort. This happens when your blood flow is sluggish. You may wake up tired or get drowsy in the afternoon. This is even more likely if you aren’t breathing well when you sleep. Your family may notice snoring or louder snoring than before. There can be other reasons for many of these symptoms too. Tell your nurse if your symptoms get worse.