Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive Heart Failure

Heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped working.

Rather, it means that the heart's pumping power is weaker than normal.

With heart failure, blood moves through the heart and body at a slower rate, and pressure in the heart increases. As a result, the heart cannot pump enough oxygen and nutrients to meet the body's needs.

The chambers of the heart respond by stretching to hold more blood to pump through the body or by becoming stiff and thickened. This helps to keep the blood moving for a short while but, in time, the heart muscle walls weaken and are unable to pump as strongly.

As a result, the kidneys often respond by causing the body to retain fluid (water) and sodium. If fluid builds up in the arms, legs, ankles, feet, lungs, or other organs, the body becomes congested, and congestive heart failure is the term used to describe the condition.


Heart failure is caused by many conditions that damage the heart muscle, including:

Coronary artery disease (WebMD)

Coronary artery disease (CAD), a disease of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart, causes decreased blood flow to the heart muscle. If the arteries become blocked or severely narrowed, the heart becomes starved for oxygen and nutrients.

Heart attack

A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery becomes suddenly blocked, stopping the flow of blood to the heart muscle and damaging it. All or part of the heart muscle becomes cut off from its supply of oxygen. A heart attack damages the heart muscle, resulting in a scarred area that does not function properly.

Cardiomyopathy (WebMD)

Damage to the heart muscle from causes other than artery or blood flow problems, such as from infections or alcohol or drug abuse.

Conditions that overwork the heart

Conditions including high blood pressure, valve disease (WebMD), thyroid disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or heart defects present at birth can all cause heart failure. In addition, heart failure can occur when several diseases or conditions are present at once.


You may not have any symptoms of heart failure, or the symptoms may be mild to severe. Symptoms can be constant or can come and go. The symptoms can include:

Congested lungs

Fluid back up in the lungs can cause shortness of breath with exercise or difficulty breathing at rest or when lying flat in bed. Lung congestion can also cause a dry, hacking cough or wheezing.

Fluid and water retention

Less blood to your kidneys causes fluid and water retention, resulting in swollen ankles, legs, abdomen (called edema), and weight gain. Symptoms may cause an increased need to urinate during the night. Bloating in your stomach may cause a loss of appetite or nausea.

Dizziness, fatigue, and weakness

Less blood to your major organs and muscles makes you feel tired and weak. Less blood to the brain can cause dizziness or confusion.

Rapid or irregular heartbeats

The heart beats faster to pump enough blood to the body. This can cause a fast or irregular heartbeat. If you have heart failure, you may have one or all of these symptoms or you may have none of them. In addition, your symptoms may not be related to how weak your heart is; you may have many symptoms but your heart function may be only mildly weakened. Or you may have a more severely damaged heart but have no symptoms.

Helpful Documents

View and print these helpful congestive heart failure handouts 

Cardiac Rehab: How It Can Help
Healthy Eating: How To Eat A Heart Healthy Diet
Heart Failure
Heart Failure: ACE Inhibitors
Heart Failure: Activity and Exercise
Heart Failure: Aldosterone Receptor Antagonists
Heart Failure: ARB's
Heart Failure: Checking Your Weight Daily
Heart Failure: Digoxin
Heart Failure: Diuretics
Heart Failure: Diuretics and Potassium Supplements
Heart Failure: How To Limit Your Fluids
Heart Failure: How To Limit Your Sodium
Heart Failure: Medicines To Avoid
Heart Failure: Should I Get An Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD)?
Heart Failure: Should I Get A Pacemaker?
Heart Failure: Triggers of Sudden Heart Failure
Heart Failure: Types
Heart Failure: Understanding The Symptoms
Heart Failure: Vasodilators
Heart Failure: Ventricular Assist Device (VAD)
Heart Failure: Your Guide To Self Care
Heart Medicines: Beta-Blockers