Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough oxygenated blood to meet the needs of the body's other organs.

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, may result from the following conditions: heart valve disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), infections of the heart valves and/or heart muscle, previous heart attack, coronary artery disease, congenital heart disease/defects (present at birth), cardiac arrhythmias, chronic lung disease, or diabetes.

A weakened heart also interferes with the kidney's ability to eliminate excess sodium and waste from the body. In heart failure, the body retains more fluid--resulting in swelling of the ankles and legs. Fluid also collects in the lungs, which causes shortness of breath.

Heart Failure Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing when you exert yourself
  • Weakness or tiredness, inability to walk as far as you used to
  • Problems breathing when you're lying down
  • Weight change of 3 or more pounds in a 2 day timeframe
  • Waking up at night coughing or short of breath
  • The need to go to the bathroom many times during the night
  • Swollen ankles or feet, or swelling in the abdomen
  • Dizzy Spells

Usually, the loss in the heart's pumping action is a symptom of an underlying heart problem. Nearly 5.7 million Americans are living with heart failure, and 670,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

The severity of heart failure and symptoms depends on how much of the heart's pumping capacity has been lost. Symptoms may resemble other conditions or medical problems.

Diagnostic Procedures

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for heart failure may include any, or a combination of, the following:

  • Chest X-ray: a diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Echocardiogram: a noninvasive test that uses sound waves to produce a study of the motion of the heart's chambers and valves. The echo sound waves create an image on the monitor as an ultrasound transducer is passed over the heart.

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): a test that records the electrical activity of the heart, shows abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias or dysrhythmias), and detects heart muscle damage.

  • BNP testing: B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) is a hormone released from the ventricles in response to increased wall tension (stress) that occurs with heart failure. The higher the BNP levels, the worse the heart failure.


The cause of the heart failure will determine what kinds of treatment options are viable. If the heart failure is caused by a valve disorder, then surgery is usually performed. If the heart failure is caused by a disease then the disease is treated. And, although there is no cure for heart failure due to a damaged heart muscle, many forms of treatment have proven to be successful.

The goal of treatment is to improve a person's quality of life by making the appropriate lifestyle changes and implementing drug therapy. Treatment of heart failure may include losing weight (if overweight), restricting salt and fat intake, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol, getting proper rest, controlling blood sugar (for people with diabetes), controlling blood pressure, and limiting fluids.

Medical Reviewer: Mukamal, Kenneth MD Last Annual Review Date: 2010-01-04T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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Heart failure is the condition in which the heart stops beating.