What is Heart Failure?

Heart failure is a general term that means that your heart is not pumping blood as effectively as needed to the rest of your body. Because blood carries oxygen and materials that nourish the body, as a result, other organs do not receive the nutrients that they need.

When the body realizes that it is not being nourished properly, it signals the heart to pump harder so that blood will circulate more thoroughly. However, as the heart works harder to meet the needs of the body, the muscle tissue that makes up the heart can get thicker (just as other muscles in your body get larger when you exercise them more than usual). The heart can also become stretched and stiffened due to the increased demands.

As the heart changes shape, these physical changes are called “remodeling.” As the heart muscle remodels, the heart becomes less efficient in pumping blood out, and so the heart continually has to work harder and harder. Eventually these changes, occurring with the progression of heart failure, can lead to serious complications.

Heart failure can affect many organs of the body. The weakened heart muscles may not be able to supply enough blood to the kidneys, which then begin to lose their normal ability to excrete salt (sodium) and water, causing the body to retain more fluid. The lungs may become congested with fluid, something doctors call pulmonary edema. Fluid may accumulate in the liver, thereby impairing its ability to rid the body of toxins and produce essential proteins, eventually resulting in renal failure. The intestines may become less efficient in absorbing nutrients and medicines. Fluid also may accumulate in the extremities, especially the legs and ankles. Eventually, left untreated, worsening heart failure will affect virtually every organ in the body.

Heart failure often initially develops because you have (or had) a medical condition, such as coronary artery disease, a heart attack or high blood pressure, or exposure to cardiotoxic conditions, which has damaged or put extra workload on your heart.

The Warning Signs of Heart Failure

Here are some common early warning signs that may indicate the presence of heart failure. Just because you may experience one or more of the following symptoms, doesn’t mean you have heart failure. It could be caused by something else, but, regardless, you should consult your physician or healthcare professional.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the legs or ankles
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen
  • Frequent dry, hacking cough
  • Increase fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping, waking up with shortness of breath
  • Nausea


The following websites may be able to provide you with additional information about heart failure.

A website provided by the Heart Failure Society of America (HFSA). The website provides information for patients as well as those interested in heart failure research. It focuses heavily on educational information.

The European Society of Cardiology (ESC) and the Heart Failure Association of the ESC have written a thorough review of what causes heart failure, which tests should be run, how your doctor can treat heart failure, advice for living with heart failure for you and your caregivers, and other useful information.

HeartHub for Patients
This website, which is sponsored by the American Heart Association (AHA), provides patients with information to help them avoid serious heart failure episodes that lead to a hospitalization. The site provides dietary and lifestyle information as well as material to further explain your medical situation and care.

Medline Plus
Provided by the National Institutes for Health (NIH), this site provides many links to other resources on the web for heart failure as well as a lot of information in Spanish. The website also has an interactive tutorial in English or Spanish for patients.

American Heart Association
In addition to background information on heart failure, the AHA site provides patients with multimedia illustrations and animations to help understand some of the medical terminology and progression of the disease.

Additional Links


Mayo Clinic