Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

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Congestive heart failure facts

  • Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition in which the heart's function as a pump is inadequate to meet the body's needs.
  • Many disease processes can impair the pumping efficiency of the heart to cause congestive heart failure.
  • The symptoms of congestive heart failure vary, but can include:
  • The diagnosis of congestive heart failure is based on knowledge of the individual's medical history, a careful physical examination, and selected laboratory tests.
  • The treatment of congestive heart failure can include lifestyle modifications, addressing potentially reversible factors, medications, heart transplant, and mechanical therapies.
  • The course of congestive heart failure in any given patient is extremely variable.

What is congestive heart failure (CHF)?

Heart failure describes the inability or failure of the heart to adequately meet the needs of organs and tissues for oxygen and nutrients. This decrease in cardiac output, the amount of blood that the heart pumps, is not adequate to circulate the blood returning to the heart from the body and lungs, causing fluid (mainly water) to leak from capillary blood vessels. This leads to the symptoms that may include shortness of breath, weakness, and swelling.

Understanding blood flow in the heart and body

The right side of the heart pumps blood to the lungs while the left side pumps blood to the rest of the body. Blood from the body enters the right atrium though the vena cava. It then flows into the right ventricle where it is pumped to the lungs through the pulmonary artery. In the lungs, oxygen is loaded onto red blood cells and returns to the left atrium of the heart via the pulmonary artery. Blood then flows into the left ventricle where it is pumped to the organs and tissues of the body. Oxygen is downloaded from red blood cells while carbon dioxide, a waste product of metabolism, is added to be removed in the lungs. Blood then returns to the right atrium to start the cycle again.

Picture of a cross section of the heart.
Picture of a cross section of the heart.

Left heart failure occurs when the left ventricle cannot pump blood to the body and fluid backs up and leaks into the lungs causing shortness of breath. Right heart failure occurs when the right ventricle cannot adequately pump blood to the lungs. Blood and fluid may back up in the veins that deliver blood to the heart. This can cause fluid to leak into tissues and organs.

It is important to know that both sides of the heart may fail to function adequately at the same time and this is called biventricular heart failure. This often occurs since the most common cause of right heart failure is left heart failure.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/16/2013

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Congestive Heart Failure Symptoms

Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath is the most common symptom of congestive heart failure. Shortness of breath has causes affecting either the breathing passages and lungs or the heart or blood vessels. Shortness of breath is also referred to as dyspnea. Doctors will further classify dyspnea as either occurring at rest or being associated with activity or exercise. They will also want to know if the shortness of breath occurs gradually or all of a sudden.