This Is What Happens to Your Body During Heart Failure

No, it doesn’t mean your heart has actually failed.

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The term heart failure doesn’t mean the heart has stopped working. In fact, it’s a very manageable and treatable condition that more than 6 million Americans are living with.

What Does Heart Failure Do to the Body?

The heart is a pump that contracts and relaxes. A normal heart might have about four to six liters of blood pumping through it every minute, which gets dispersed to every organ in your body, says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle has become weak and can’t pump blood well enough to meet the body’s needs. Basically, it can’t keep up with its workload. “Heart failure is a condition where either your heart doesn’t pump well, or your heart doesn’t relax well,” says Dr. Bloom.

Half of heart failure patients have reduced ejection fraction, which means the heart doesn’t pump well. The other half have what’s called preserved ejection fraction, which means the pump works, but the heart has a problem relaxing.

“The ejection fraction, or what amount of blood from your heart goes to your body with each pump, is normally about 55 percent,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.  “Now when you have systolic heart failure, or weakening of that left heart pump, that number starts dropping.” Someone with heart failure may have an ejection fraction of about 25 to 35 percent.


Symptoms of Heart Failure

So when the heart is pumping and it’s pumping weak, where does the blood go? “It’s backing up. It’s backing up into the lungs so you start getting short of breath,” says Dr. Bhusri. This is called congestion.

During congestive heart failure, blood flows too slowly out of the heart, and the blood trying to return to the heart gets backed up and causes congestion. This causes blood to pool and collect around the heart and in the veins. This can lead to these heart failure symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Discomfort while lying flat and needing extra pillows
  • Gasping for air in the middle of the night
  • Edema, or swelling in the legs and belly
  • “Pitting” in the swelling (when you press down on a swollen skin area and are left with an indentation)

Another issue patients with heart failure have is called perfusion, which can lead to different symptoms. “Perfusion is the amount of blood that’s getting to all the organs in the body,” says Dr. Bloom. “If that pump isn’t working well, then you might not be getting enough blood supply to the different organs.”

Not enough blood supply translates to not enough oxygen, and all the organs, including the brain, can be affected by poor perfusion. This may cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important that you see your doctor to check for heart failure as soon as possible.

“The number one cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease, so we have to rule that out because that can be reversible, we can fix that artery and improve the heart muscle to make it stronger,” says Dr. Bhusri. “We have now devices and medicines that can actually bring you back to the same lifespan that you would have had before having heart failure.”

Learn more here about how heart failure is treated.