Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. In some cases, the heart can’t fill with enough blood. In other cases, the heart can’t pump blood to the rest of the body with enough force. Some people have both problems.

The term “heart failure” doesn’t mean that your heart has stopped or is about to stop working. However, heart failure is a serious condition that requires medical care. Unlike a heart attack (or myocardial infarction) where the arteries that bring blood and oxygen to the heart are blocked, with heart failure, the heart muscle becomes damaged for one or more reasons. Some of these reasons include coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, being overweight, having high cholesterol, drinking too much alcohol or smoking. With heart failure, the heart is unable to pump blood throughout the body as well as it should. It is also not able to relax and fill with blood properly, causing the extra fluid to back up into the lungs and other parts of the body. Fluid buildup may cause shortness of breath, sudden weight gain (3 pounds over one or two days) and/or swelling of the legs, ankles or feet.

Heart failure develops over time as the heart’s pumping action grows weaker. While the condition can affect the right side of the heart only, most cases involve both sides.

Heart failure is a very common condition. About 5.1 million people in the United States have heart failure.1 Currently, heart failure has no cure. However, treatments—such as medicines and lifestyle changes—can help people who have the condition live longer and more active lives. Healthcare professionals recommend eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, limiting daily alcohol intake to three or less standard drinks for men, and two standard drinks per day for women, not smoking and controlling blood pressure. In addition to taking on a healthier lifestyle, treatment for heart failure may include several types of prescription medications taken together.2 Beta blockers ensure that the heart is not working too hard, Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors help protect the heart in different ways, and the “water pills” furosemide and spironolactone prevent fluid buildup. While these medications will not cure heart failure, they can slow the progression of the disease and help prevent hospitalization from complications. Researchers continue to study new ways to treat heart failure and its complications.

In-depth information on heart failure can be found in the H2U online health library.

  1. CDC. (2015, February 20). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 2015, from Heart Failure.
  2. Yancy, C. et al. (October, 2013). 2013 ACCF/AHA Guideline for the Management of Heart Failure: A Report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation, e240-e327.



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Robin Cunningham, RN

Robin Cunningham, RN, is a director for Physician Services at HealthTrust. A cardiovascular care specialist, she previously served as a clinical director for SourceTrust and, prior to that, served in leadership positions with HCA for 25 years. Cunningham works with HealthTrust members on medical device contracting projects, product analysis, spend review and physician engagement. She is a member of the American College of Cardiology, serving as state liaison for Tennessee, as well as the American Heart Association Greater Southeast Affiliate for Mission Lifeline. Cunningham holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the Medical University of South Carolina and a master’s degree in nursing from Austin Peay State University. More Articles by This Author »