Select the search type
  • Site
  • Web

Heart Failure Symptoms & Diagnosis

Heart failure can sound like a scary condition. While the condition is very serious, it doesn’t mean your heart has stopped working. Instead, being diagnosed with heart failure means your heart has started to weaken and isn’t pumping blood as well as it should. 

Blood supplies oxygen and nutrients to the cells of your organs and tissues. When your heart isn’t keeping up with your body’s demand for oxygen, symptoms of heart failure can develop. 

At the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Heart & Vascular Center, our heart failure cardiologists evaluate the type and severity of your condition. Then we’ll talk with you about a personalized treatment plan that can relieve your symptoms and help you get back to doing the things you enjoy. 

Heart Failure Symptoms

When heart failure restricts blood flow, the condition can produce a variety of symptoms. You may experience signs including: 

  • Shortness of breath, especially when lying flat or upon exertion
  • Constant coughing or wheezing, which may be worse when you lie flat
  • Fatigue or feeling weak to the point that it makes everyday tasks difficult
  • Increased heart rate, which may feel as if your heart is racing
  • Swelling in your legs, ankles, feet or belly
  • Moments of memory loss and feeling confused
  • Feeling full or nauseous

Causes of Heart Failure

The primary causes of heart failure are diseases that damage the heart. Heart failure experts may be able to slow the progression of heart failure by managing these underlying conditions. 

The most common causes of heart failure are: 

  • High blood pressure: When the force of blood pressing against your veins and arteries is greater than normal, doctors call it high blood pressure or hypertension. Learn more about high blood pressure.
  • Coronary artery disease: When cholesterol and other substances in the blood build up along the walls of your blood vessels, the blood vessels become narrower. This condition makes it harder for blood to flow through the vessels. Read more about coronary artery disease.
  • Heart attack: A heart attack happens when a blockage cuts off the oxygen-rich blood supply to your heart. Heart attacks can damage heart tissue and blood vessels. Get the full explanation of what a heart attack entails.

Other conditions that can lead to heart failure include:

  • Arrhythmia and heart rhythm disorders: Most often known as arrhythmia, several conditions can cause your heartbeat to fall out of rhythm. Learn more about arrhythmia and heart rhythm disorders.
  • Cardiomyopathy: When your heart muscle becomes enlarged or thick, doctors call it cardiomyopathy. Your heart can’t pump blood as well as it should when you have this condition. Read more about the many causes of cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital heart disease: Heart defects you are born with can affect the walls of your heart, the valves, or nearby veins and arteries. Get more information about congenital heart disease in adults. 
  • Diabetes: A disease you can have from childhood or develop later in life, diabetes affects the way your body processes the hormone insulin. Over time, diabetes can damage your blood vessels. Learn more about diabetes.
  • Heart valve disease: Several types of heart valve problems can cause heart valves to stiffen, leak or otherwise not work correctly. Heart valve disease can be congenital or develop later in life. Read more about the types of heart valve disease.

Heart Failure Diagnosis 

Our cardiologists will work to identify the exact cause of your heart failure. By identifying the problem with your heart’s function, our team can create the treatment plan that will work best for you. 

We’ll use cardiac diagnostic tests to get a better understanding of how your heart is functioning. These tests may include:

  • Echocardiogram: An ultrasound of the heart that creates an image using sound waves
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the heart: A scan that provides a picture of your heart’s structure 
  • Stress test: A recording of your heart’s function while exercising
  • Cardiac catheterization: A look inside your heart through an injection of dye

At the Heart & Vascular Center, our team is well equipped to diagnose heart failure and to develop an effective, personalized treatment plan for you. Learn more about our heart failure team and their patient-centered approach. 

Types of Heart Failure

Heart failure can affect the left or right side of the heart. Eventually, most cases involve both sides of the heart. 

Two types of problems with the heart’s pumping ability can cause heart failure:

  • Reduced ejection fraction: Reduced ejection fraction describes your heart’s decreased ability to tighten enough to push oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of your body. Another term for this condition is systolic failure. 
  • Preserved ejection fraction: Sometimes, your heart isn’t able to loosen up enough between pumps to allow the full amount of blood to flow into it. The result is that your heart doesn’t pump enough blood to the rest of your body. People sometimes refer to preserved ejection fraction as diastolic failure. Read more about understanding ejection fraction

Congestive Heart Failure

You might hear the term congestive heart failure used to describe heart failure in general. However, congestive heart failure actually means that heart failure has progressed to the point where blood is backing up and causing fluid to build up in tissues. Either type of heart failure – reduced ejection fraction or preserved ejection fraction – can cause this congestion. 

The type of heart failure you have determines which treatment options are best for you. Our expert cardiologists can treat all types and stages of heart failure.

Treatments to relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life include everything from lifestyle modifications to state-of-the-art surgical interventions. Learn more about our full range of heart failure treatments

Contact Us

To make an appointment with a Washington University heart failure specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, call 855.925.0631.