Heart Failure

Also known as congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure—often referred to as heart failure—is the term used to describe what happens when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Heart failure should not be confused with cardiac arrest, in which the heart stops beating entirely. Instead, heart failure is the inadequate functioning of the heart muscle.

The condition can either be acute, meaning it occurs rapidly and generally on a short-term basis, or chronic, which means it occurs over the long term.

Key Terms

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the symptoms of congestive heart failure?

    The symptoms of heart failure can vary depending on the location of heart damage, which may occur on the heart’s ride side (right-sided heart failure), left side (left-sided heart failure), or both (biventricular failure). Symptoms for each differ somewhat, but those common to all three conditions include fatigue, dizziness, swelling in the legs, and shortness of breath, especially with exercise.

  • What causes congestive heart failure?

    In heart failure, the strain put on heart muscles over a long period of time hampers efficient blood flow to the point that fluid builds up in the heart and lungs and, eventually, in the extremities. Heart failure may be caused by cardiovascular conditions that weaken the heart, such as heart attack, coronary artery disease, or hypertension, as well as by other diseases and conditions.

  • How is heart failure diagnosed?

    Heart failure is usually diagnosed with an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart that shows heart function. Measuring brain natriuretic peptide, or BNP, has also gained attention in recent decades because it can be performed using a blood test. Both tests, along with symptoms, may be used to establish or rule out a diagnosis of heart failure.

  • How long can you live with congestive heart failure?

    With appropriate lifestyle changes and medical treatment, you can live with congestive heart failure for many years. Adopting a heart-healthy diet and increasing physical activity are examples of lifestyle changes that will improve your heart and health. However, if left untreated, heart failure can cause blood to build up in the body, leading to swelling (edema) in the legs and lungs and, eventually, organ failure.

  • What are the four stages of congestive heart failure?

    The New York Heart Association (NYHA) Functional Classification identifies four stages of congestive heart failure, based on the level of symptoms. Class I indicates no limits on physical activity due to symptoms. Those with Class IV heart failure have no ability to be active, with symptoms of heart failure at rest.

Page Sources
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  1. American Heart Association, Classes Of Heart Failure.

Additional Reading
  • National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Myocardial biopsy. MedlinePlus. Updated January 5, 2021.