Be Informed.

This brochure has been developed by Jackson Heart Clinic to help you understand Heart Failure. The cardiologists and staff know that an informed patient can better participate in decisions that impact health care. Working with you, we can better diagnose your problem and start treatment that will help prevent heart failure from becoming worse and help you enjoy life as fully as possible. Although heart failure can occur at any age, the following information focuses on heart failure in adults.

The information on this page is also available for download and printing for your convenience.
Click on the thumbnail to view the brochure (PDF).

Heart Failure

What is it?

The term heart failure does not mean that your heart has stopped working. Heart failure means that your heart is not pumping well enough to meet the needs of the body. Heart failure may mean that the heart is not filling well with blood. It may also mean that the heart cannot pump blood out with adequate force. Sometimes both problems are present with heart failure. Heart failure also means that there is increased pressure within the heart itself.

As a result of these conditions of heart failure, the chambers of the heart respond by stretching to hold more blood and/or thickening to build up muscle to work harder. While these changes may help temporarily, the heart simply does not work as well — it doesn't fill or empty effectively as it pumps. Kidneys also respond to these changes by causing the body to retain fluid (water and sodium). When that happens, fluid can build up in the arms, legs, ankles, feet, lungs, and other organs (congestion). When the body becomes congested with extra fluid, it is known as congestive heart failure.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 5.8 million people in the United States have heart failure, and the number of people affected is growing. It is the leading cause of hospitalization among people on Medicare.


Who is at risk?

Heart failure is more common in:

Those over 65 years of age

African Americans

Those who are overweight or obese


People with congenital heart disease

What causes heart failure?

The most common causes of heart failure are coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Treating these problems can prevent or improve heart failure. There are other ways the heart muscle can be damaged, leading to heart failure. Often, heart failure is caused by a combination of the factors listed below.

Coronary heart disease (also known as CHD or coronary atherosclerosis): CHD is a disease that affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart. It happens when the lining of the arteries breaks down or becomes narrowed from a progressive build-up of plaque. This causes the opening in these blood vessels to become progressively narrowed until the blood has difficulty passing. CHD can lead to chest pain or discomfort (angina), heart attack, heart damage or death.

High blood pressure (hypertension): High blood pressure means that the force against blood vessel walls is greater than it should be. Over time, high blood pressure can lead to heart failure.

Diabetes: Diabetes causes your body’s blood glucose (sugar) level to become too high. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage and weaken the heart muscle and the blood vessels around the heart, leading to heart failure.

Cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease): Cardiomyopathy may be caused by infections such as viruses, toxins such as alcohol, or even changes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Heart valve disease: Problems with heart valves may be present at birth or caused by infection, heart attack, damage from heart disease or other causes. When a valve of the heart is not normal, the heart does not pump as efficiently.

Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat): This heart problem may be present at birth or caused by heart disease. With an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, which can damage the brain, heart, and other organs.

Congenital defects: These are problems with the heart’s structure that are present at birth.

Sleep apnea: Although sleep apnea does reduce the amount of oxygen to the heart, it does not cause heart failure; it can make symptoms worse by increasing the workload of the heart.

In addition to the causes listed, some medical treatments for cancer, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can injure the heart muscle and lead to heart failure. Thyroid disease, HIV/AIDS, and too much vitamin E are also known to injure the heart muscle. Alcohol abuse, cocaine, and other illegal drug use can also cause heart failure.

Heart Failure Brochure Diagram

What are the symptoms of heart failure?

A person who has heart failure may not have symptoms. When symptoms are present, they range from mild to severe. Symptoms also may not be constant — they often come and go. Major symptoms are listed below.

Shortness of breath occurs because of fluid build-up in the lungs or because the body is simply not getting the oxygen it needs (because the heart is not pumping effectively). Shortness of breath may be experienced during exercise or while resting. It also may awaken you from sleep at night. Like many other symptoms, shortness of breath may be constant or it may come and go.

A dry, hacking cough or wheezing may occur and be more common at night and when lying down.

Weight gain or swelling in the ankles, legs, and abdomen may occur because of the lack of blood flow to the kidneys. When the kidneys do not function well, fluid cannot be moved out of the body as effectively, causing fluid to build up in the body (fluid retention), swelling (edema) and weight gain. The need to urinate while resting at night may also be related to heart failure.

Other symptoms:

Feeling of fullness (bloating), sometimes with loss of appetite or nausea

Tiredness (fatigue) and weakness during exercise or daily activities

Dizziness, confusion, difficulty concentrating, or fainting

Rapid or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)

How is heart failure diagnosed?

Your cardiologist will diagnose heart failure based on a combination of your medical and family histories, physical examination, and test results. The signs and symptoms of heart failure also occur in other conditions, so an accurate medical diagnosis is very important to determine the treatment that you need.
Your cardiologist may order the following tests.

BNP blood test: This test checks the level of a hormone in your blood called BNP. The level of this hormone rises during heart failure.

Other blood tests: Other blood tests, such as for thyroid or kidney problems, are often used in the diagnostic process.

Cardiac catheterization: This test involves the insertion of a long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck. The tube is then moved forward to your heart. This allows your doctor to look inside your coronary (heart) arteries. During this procedure, your doctor can check the pressure and blood flow in your heart chambers, collect blood samples, and use X-rays to inspect your coronary arteries. Another test, cardiac angiography, may be done during the catheterization and involves injecting a dye into the bloodstream that can be seen on X-ray. The dye allows your doctor to see the flow of blood to your heart muscle. Angiography also shows how well your heart is pumping.

Chest X-ray: An X-ray of your chest can show whether you have enlargement of your heart, fluid in your lungs, or lung disease.

Echocardiogram (Echo): Sound waves created during this test show a moving picture of your heart. It shows the size and shape of your heart and how well your heart chambers and valves work. It can also identify areas of poor blood flow to the heart, areas of the heart muscle that aren’t contracting normally, and heart muscle damage caused by lack of blood flow. Other information that an echo gives is how well blood is flowing through your heart and how well your heart pumps blood when it beats.

Ejection fraction (EF): This test measures the percentage of blood that is pumped out of the heart with each beat. It can be measured by several tests. It is an important indicator of heart failure because it shows how effectively the heart is pumping. The EF can go up or down depending on the degree of heart failure and the impact of various treatments. If the percentage is high, the heart is pumping more efficiently. If it is low, the heart is weakening and not as effective.

Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG): This simple, painless test detects and records the heart’s electrical activity. It shows the rate of your heartbeat as well as its rhythm (steady or irregular). An EKG also records the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through your heart. It may also reveal whether the walls in your heart's pumping chambers are thicker than normal. Thicker walls can make it harder for your heart to pump blood. An EKG also can show signs of a previous or current heart attack.

Multigated acquisition scan (MUGA scan): This is a nuclear scan that helps your cardiologist determine how well your heart is pumping.

Stress test: During stress testing, you will exercise to make your heart work because some heart problems are easier to diagnose during exercise. If you can’t exercise you may be given medicine to simulate exercise. Other measurements, such as EF, can also be made during some forms of stress testing, such as nuclear stress testing.

Classifications or stages of heart failure:

Pre-heart failure refers to those that are at high risk for developing heart failure or those who have abnormal hearts but have never experienced symptoms.

Your cardiologist may classify the degree of heart failure based on your symptoms and the degree to which your daily activities are affected. Stage one refers to those who do have heart failure, but no symptoms. Stages two and three refer to those whose symptoms occur with increasingly less activity. Stage four refers to those who have symptoms while at rest.

What are the treatments for heart failure?

When heart failure is diagnosed and treated early, the outcome is better — people live longer, with more active lives. Working with you as a partner, your cardiologist will prescribe treatment based on your specific type of heart failure, the degree of heart failure and your personal choices.

Goals of treatment may include improving the function of your heart, treating an underlying cause of heart failure (such as diabetes), reducing symptoms, preventing heart failure from getting worse, improving your quality of life and increasing your lifespan.

Treatment for heart failure may include one or more of the following:

1. Lifestyle Changes
Simple changes in your lifestyle can improve how you feel and help keep heart failure from worsening. These changes are really important and need to be done as soon as possible for the best result!

Diet: Following a heart healthy diet that is low in sodium (salt) is very important in treating heart failure. If you are unsure of how to do this, your cardiologist and the staff at Jackson Heart Clinic can help.

Fluid intake: As part of your treatment, your cardiologist may recommend tracking (and/or reducing) your daily fluid intake.

Limit alcohol intake and do not use Illegal drugs: Generally, you should not drink alcohol (or use illegal drugs) if you have been diagnosed with heart failure.

Lose weight: If you are overweight or obese, your cardiologist can help guide you to lose weight safely.

Exercise: Physical activity may be prescribed by your cardiologist as part of the treatment for heart failure. Always ask your doctor before beginning new exercise activities.

Stop tobacco use: If this is a problem for you, ask your cardiologist to help you find the best way for you to stop.

Rest: Make sure that you get enough rest and avoid too much activity. Ask your cardiologist about finding the right balance of rest and activity for your degree of heart failure.

2. Medication
Based on the severity and type of heart failure, your cardiologist will prescribe medications that may include one or more of the following:

Diuretics (water or fluid pills) help reduce fluid buildup in your lungs and swelling in your feet and ankles.

ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure and reduce strain on your heart. They also may reduce the risk of a future heart attack.

Aldosterone antagonists help the body to get rid of salt and water through urine. This lowers the volume of blood that the heart must pump.

Angiotensin receptor blockers relax your blood vessels and lower blood pressure to decrease your heart's workload.

Beta blockers slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.

Isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine hydrochloride helps relax your blood vessels so your heart doesn't work as hard to pump blood.

Digoxin makes the heart beat stronger and pump more blood.

3. Medical Procedures and Surgery
When lifestyle changes and medicines do not control heart failure symptoms, a medical procedure or surgery may be recommended. These may include a pacemaker or defibrillator implantation. Less often, a mechanical heart pump or a heart transplant may be suggested. The mechanical heart pump is usually considered as a temporary solution for those who are awaiting a heart transplant as a long-term solution for heart failure.

When should I call my cardiologist?

You should call 911 or emergency services immediately if you suddenly experience any of these potentially life-threatening symptoms:

Chest pain that is severe, unexpected and occurs with sweating, shortness of breath or nausea

For those that have been prescribed nitroglycerin, call for emergency help if chest pain is not relieved five minutes after taking one nitroglycerin tablet.

Fast heart rate (more than 125-150 beats per minute)

Numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in your face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of your body)

Changes in vision

Trouble speaking or understanding simple things

Problems with balance or walking

Severe headache that seems different

Fainting spell with loss of consciousness

You should call/notify your cardiologist soon and schedule an appointment if you experience any of the following or if your usual symptoms get worse:

Feeling extremely tired or having increased difficulty maintaining your usual activities

Having a need for more sleep or changes in your usual sleep patterns

Having more trouble breathing than usual during exercise

Waking up at night with shortness of breath or a feeling of suffocating

Having a respiratory infection or cough that gets worse or having a dry hacking cough, especially when lying down

Unexplained/sudden weight gain, for instance over three pounds in two to three days

Feeling full or bloated with loss of appetite or nausea

Having a fast heartbeat (over 100 beats a minute) or a new, irregular heart beat

Increased swelling in your ankles, feet, legs, or abdomen

Any swelling, redness, pain or warmth around the site of the pacemaker

Unexplained decreased urination

Restlessness, confusion, or dizziness

Everyday ways to help your heart

There are many ways that you can help yourself live with heart failure. Start by making the lifestyle changes recommended by your cardiologist and ask questions about anything that you don’t understand.

You should also watch for signs that heart failure is getting worse. The following tips will also help:

Conserve your energy: Be realistic and thoughtful about the level of activity that you can reasonably manage with heart failure. Ask for help when needed and make sure to get enough rest.

Keep good records: This will help you know when to call your doctor. For instance, keep a record of your weight, your medications, your blood pressure readings, and any other records mentioned by your cardiologist. If you need help with this, ask a family member or friend to help.

Keep track of your symptoms: Communicate changes to your cardiologist and/or the staff at Jackson Heart Clinic.

Schedule regular follow-up visits: Ongoing communication and regular check-ups with your cardiologist are important to prevent heart failure from becoming worse.

Take medicine exactly as it was prescribed: Ask questions if you don't understand and always make sure that your cardiologist has a record of all medications that you take (prescription and over-the-counter).

In Summary

This brochure has provided thorough information about heart failure symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Although heart failure can be serious and even life threatening, it can be treated so that your symptoms are manageable and the progress of the disease lessened. With your new knowledge of the problem, you can work with your cardiologist at Jackson Heart Clinic to develop a plan that works best for you and your unique needs. It is our goal for you to have the highest possible level of cardiovascular health!

Patient Resources:


Explore these resources for more information about Heart Failure.

Heart Failure Society of America, Inc.
For general information and linkages:
For educational materials

WebMD Heart Failure Health Center

American College of Cardiology: Cardio Smart

Cleveland Clinic