Discovery: What is heart failure?
What is heart failure? - A doctor explains
Heart failure happens when the heart does not pump blood round the body as well as it should. It is not a disease in itseld but a condition that results from something that impairs the working of the heart. It affects people in many ways, depending on what has caused it and how it develops.
Many people we interviewed said the term 'heart failure' was confusing. One man thought the term was too vague, and a woman said that she had felt quite frightened on discovering she had heart failure.
We asked a GP with a specialist interest in heart failure to help explain what it means, and to clear up some misconceptions about the condition. He prefers the terms 'heart impairment' or 'heart damage' because they are less negative. He also explains the difference between a heart attack and heart failure which he emphasises are not the same thing.
Heart failure covers a range of experience. Many things can cause heart failure, and heart failure itself can lead to other medical problems. Sometimes it is not possible for doctors to be sure why someone has developed heart failure. So no one with heart failure can be described as 'typical', nor is there an 'average' heart failure patient. Our GP outlines the range of things that may cause heart failure (see also 'What causes it' and 'Other causes'). He feels that people should not blame themselves for having heart failure.
Both treatment and outcomes for those with heart failure have improved in recent years because of advances in tests, medication, rehabilitation programmes and surgical procedures (see 'Tests and treatment' section). Until recently it was thought that those with heart failure were at the 'end stage' of heart disease. Now some doctors feel that with better medication and follow-up procedures heart failure can be kept under effective control for years.
People talked about their ways of coping and managing heart failure. Several said they didn't think about heart failure much and that they didn't want it to make them alter the way they lived. Others described how having heart failure had affected them and changed their quality of life. The GP explains how difficult it is for doctors to measure someone's 'quality of life'. He says that he tries to strike a balance between honesty and working with people's coping mechanisms when it comes to giving a prognosis.
The Healthtalkonline Heart Failure website reflects a range of experience from those who have heart failure. It explores how they responded to finding out they had the condition, what they feel about tests and treatment, and, most importantly, it reflects how they are coping with heart failure on a daily basis.
Last reviewed: March 2012.
Last updated: March 2012.