Heart failure, contrary to the name, does not mean the heart has failed. It’s still pumping, and you can still treat the condition. (Learn how doctors treat heart failure here.)
Although the heart is still pumping, heart failure is a serious condition that can affect the entire body and your overall quality of life. “Heart failure is a condition in which either your heart doesn’t pump well, or your heart doesn’t relax well,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.
Signs of heart failure stem from two key issues, known as congestion and perfusion.
Congestion refers to the heart not being able to pump blood effectively or relax well, according to Dr. Weisfelner Bloom. 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, according to the American Heart Association. This causes blood to pool and collect around the heart and in the veins.
Symptoms of congestion during heart failure include:
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
Pitting refers to what happens when you press down on the skin in an area that’s swollen from heart failure. “[If] you remove your thumb and you can still see that indentation, that’s heart failure,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Perfusion from heart failure can lead to other symptoms. “Perfusion is the amount of blood that’s getting to all the organs in the body,” says Dr. Weisfelner 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. If you’re not getting enough blood to the organs, you may notice these heart failure symptoms, according to Dr. Bhusri:
Vague Heart Failure Symptoms You Can’t Ignore
“Shortness of breath and fatigue are the two most important symptoms that I don’t want patients to ignore,” says Dr. Bhusri. “They are very non-specific symptoms, but they can be the first signs and symptoms of heart failure and even heart attack.”
If you notice shortness of breath and fatigue, seeking treatment early is key. Treatment can keep symptoms under control, prevent heart failure from progressing to a more advanced stage, and possibly re-strengthen the heart and blood vessels, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Of course, the best treatment of heart failure is prevention. Here are risk factors of heart failure you should know about and lifestyle tweaks for a healthier heart.