Can the Heart FAIL? What it means when you're told you have heart failure

The term heart failure is a terrifying one. The heart beat is what keeps us alive and well. We rely on it every day to rise and fall as we need.

But what happens when something goes wrong? Can your heart fail?

The term “heart failure” is basically when your heart just isn’t strong enough to do what it needs to. It is caused by damage to the heart that can effect how well it gets oxygen to the rest of the body. The lungs get oxygen into the blood from the air we breathe and the heart pumps that blood to the body. If the heart is too weak, we don’t get the amount of oxygen we need.

Heart failure can be broken down into the two sides of the heart (though many times we see both together).

Right sided heart failure: When you aren’t getting enough oxygen filled blood to the lungs
Left sided heart failure: When you aren’t getting enough oxygen filled blood to the body.

Heart failure is more common than you would think. It is estimated that over 600 000 Canadians are living with heart failure today.

What causes it?

Heart failure can be caused by either weakness or stiffness in the parts of the heart that pump blood throughout the body. This can happen because of many things but some are
• Heart attack
• High blood pressure
• A problem with a heart valve
• Major alcohol or drug use

Other possible causes are obesity and sleep apnea.
High blood pressure, alcohol and drug use, and obesity are preventable conditions that are largely in our control!

How would I feel if I had heart failure?

There are many symptoms but most often it is characterized by shortness of breath.
Some other symptoms are
• Finding it hard to breath lying down
• Coughing, especially lying down
• Finding it easier to breath with multiple pillows propped under your head
• Low energy or feeling tired all the time
• You don’t feel as hungry
• Swelling and puffiness in your feet, ankles and legs

But many people live many years with heart failure. The name is scary but there’s plenty that you can do! Exercise is a big one! Your heart is a muscle and so like any muscle you can exercise it to make it stronger. Cardiac rehab is a way for you to learn how to do that or physiotherapy can get you started on the right path.

Other things you can do is watch your weight, eat healthier, lower the amount of salt you eat, and watch your blood pressure. For some, surgery becomes necessary but those steps you can discuss with your doctor.

Medical terms like heart failure can sound scary, but learning what to do about it makes it better. Like so many other conditions, exercise seems to be a really good start to managing your symptoms.


1.The Heart and Stroke Foundation. Understanding Heart Failure – the Basics

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Christina Prevett

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