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Understanding Heart Failure

Defining ‘Heart Failure’

Heart failure is a medical condition where the heart is unable to circulate blood normally, leading to symptoms of poor circulation or fluid retention, shortness of breath or leg swelling.

Often, heart failure is due to either a weakened heart muscle or stiff heart muscle.

Signs & Symptoms of Early Heart Failure

Heart failure can cause a variety of symptoms depending on the severity of heart failure and the specific heart chambers involved. Some common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath with exertion
  • Coughing
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Abdominal bloating or distension
  • Sleeping on multiple pillows (because lying flat causes shortness of breath)

Heart failure is NOT the same thing as a heart attack. A heart attack can cause heart failure.


The 4 Stages of Heart Failure

The American College of Cardiology defines 4 stages of heart failure from stages A-D.

Stage A

Patients have pre-disposing risk factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes that are known to cause heart failure.

Stage B

Patients have developed observable changes to the heart muscle, and though diseased, the heart muscle continues to circulate blood normally.

Stage C

Patients have developed heart failure symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fluid retention, and can be managed with medicine.

Stage D

Patients are severely ill and may require advanced interventions to maintain adequate circulation, such as pacemakers, intravenous medicines, and in certain cases heart transplant or surgically implanted mechanical heart pumps called left ventricular assist devices.

Preventing Heart Failure – What Can I Do?

Heart failure has many causes, ranging from hereditary disease to viral illnesses.

The most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease, which is hardening and narrowing of the heart arteries.

Treating risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes while living an active lifestyle with a heart healthy diet are all important to prevent coronary artery disease.


When should you see a doctor?

All patients should regularly visit their primary care physicians for identification and treatment of risk factors for heart disease. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with heart failure, you should see a cardiologist for regular check ups. Checkups may involve laboratory testing and medication adjustments.

Heart failure patients who experience worsening fluid retention or shortness of breath should seek medical attention since these are signs of decompensation (organ failure) and should be treated before serious complications occur.

About Stuart Russell, MD

Dr. Stuart Russell is a board certified cardiovascular disease and advanced heart failure/transplant cardiologist who is dedicated to the care and treatment of advanced heart failure patients. Learn more about Dr. Russell, and request an appointment today.