How Does Heart Failure Affect Your Body?

When you have heart failure, your heart may not be strong enough to pump out as much blood as your body needs. As it tries to move more blood, your heart gets larger. It also pumps faster, and your blood vessels narrow to get more blood out to your body.

As your heart works harder, it becomes weaker and the damage increases. Your body gets less oxygen, and you might notice symptoms like shortness of breath, swelling in your legs, and fluid buildup.

Your body tries to keep the blood it has to supply your heart and brain. This leaves less for organs like your kidneys and liver. A lack of enough blood can damage these organs.

You can't cure heart failure, but you can manage it by following your treatment plan. Medicines, diet, exercise, and surgery are just some of the treatments your doctor might suggest to prevent these problems.

Abnormal Heart Rhythm

In a normal heart, the upper chambers (called the atria) and lower chambers (the ventricles) squeeze and relax in turn to move blood through your body. If your ticker is weak, these chambers might not squeeze at the right time. Your heart might beat too slowly, too quickly, or in an irregular pattern. When the rhythm is off, your heart can't pump enough blood out to your body.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is one type of abnormal heart rhythm that heart failure can cause. It causes your heart to quiver and skip instead of beating.

An irregular heartbeat can cause your blood to pool, which might lead to clots. A clot that forms in a vein is called venous thromboembolism. The clot can break free and travel to your lungs. Then it's called pulmonary embolism. Or a clot can travel to your brain. If it blocks a blood vessel there, you could have a stroke.

Heart Valve Problems

Your heart has four valves that open and close to keep blood flowing in and out of your heart. As the damage gets worse and your heart has to work harder to pump out blood, it gets bigger. The change in size can damage the valves.

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Kidney Damage or Failure

Your kidneys filter wastes and extra fluid out of your blood. Just like your other organs, they need a steady supply of blood to work like they should.

Without the amount of blood they need, they won’t be able to remove enough wastes from your blood. This is called kidney failure. It's treated with dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Kidney disease can also make your heart failure worse. Damaged kidneys they can't remove as much water from your blood as healthy ones. You'll start to hold onto fluid, which boosts your blood pressure. High blood pressure makes your heart work even harder.

Anemia

This is a lack of the red blood cells that move oxygen to your body's tissues. If you have anemia, your body may not get enough oxygen. Your kidneys make a protein called erythropoietin (EPO), which helps your body make new red blood cells. Kidney damage from heart failure prevents your body from making enough EPO.

Liver Damage

Your liver breaks down toxins so your body can remove them. It also stores bile, a fluid used to digest food.

Heart failure can rob your liver of the blood it needs to work. The fluid buildup that comes with it puts extra pressure on the portal vein, which brings blood to your liver. This can scar the organ to the point where it doesn't work as well as it should.

Lung Problems

A damaged heart can't pump blood as effectively from your lungs out to your body. Blood backs up, raising pressure in the veins inside your lungs. This pushes fluid into your air sacs. As liquid builds up, it gets harder to breathe. This is called pulmonary edema.

Extreme Weight Loss and Muscle Loss

Heart failure can affect muscle and fat metabolism. In the late stages, you might lose a lot of weight and muscle mass. Your muscles can get smaller and weaker.

How to Prevent Complications

Heart failure will get worse over time if you don't treat it. Severe heart failure can be life threatening.

Treatments like weight loss, a healthy diet, exercise, and medicines can protect your heart and keep you healthy. Follow your doctor's advice and stick with your treatment plan. The better you take care of your heart, the less likely you are to have other problems.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on April 30, 2017

Sources

Mayo Clinic: Heart failure: “Complications," "Definition," “Lifestyle and home remedies,” "Treatments and drugs," "Pulmonary edema: Causes," “Venous thromboembolism.”

American Heart Association: "Roles of Your Four Heart Valves," "What is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)?" "What is Heart Failure?"

UpToDate: "Patient Education: Heart failure (Beyond the Basics)."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "What Causes Heart Valve Disease?" “What Is Pulmonary Embolism?”

American Kidney Fund: “Heart disease,” “Treatment of kidney failure.”

Circulation: "Anemia in Chronic Heart Failure," "Thrombotic complications in heart failure."

PubMed Health: "Liver."

European Journal of Medical Research: "When the heart kills the liver: acute liver failure in congestive heart failure."

Future Cardiology: "Muscle Wasting Is Associated With Reduced Exercise Capacity and Advanced Disease in Patients With Chronic Heart Failure."

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