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Understanding Heart Failure: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

This article first appeared in E-Berita July 2023 issue, the monthly magazine of the Malaysian Medical Association.
 Copyright © 2023 Reprinted with permission from the Malaysian Medical Association
Heart failure is a serious medical condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is a progressive condition in which the heart becomes weakened and unable to pump blood efficiently to meet the body’s needs. In this article, we will delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatments options for heart failure, shedding light on this prevalent and potentially life-threatening condition.
Causes of Heart Failure

Heart failure can arise from various underlying conditions that damage or weaken the heart. Some common causes include:
  • Coronary Artery Disease: Blocked or narrowed arteries reduce blood flow to the heart muscle, leading to damage and weakening of the heart.
  • High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): Prolonged high blood pressure forces the heart to work harder, causing it to weaken over time.
  • Heart Attacks: A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is interrupted, resulting in damage to the heart muscle and impaired pumping function.
  • Cardiomyopathy: This condition involves the enlargement or thickening of the heart muscle, making it harder for the heart to contract effectively.
  • Heart Valve Problems: Damaged or malfunctioning heart valves can disrupt blood flow and strain the heart.
  • Congenital Heart Defects: Structural abnormalities present at birth can affect the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently.  

Symptoms of Heart Failure

Heart failure symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Common signs and symptoms include:
  • Shortness of Breath: Breathlessness during physical activity or even at rest is a hallmark symptom of heart failure.
  • Fatigue and Weakness: The weakened heart struggles to pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands, leading to fatigue and reduced stamina.
  • Swelling: Fluid retention can cause swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, or abdomen.
  • Rapid or Irregular Heartbeat: Heart failure can lead to an irregular or rapid heart rate, known as arrhythmias.
  • Persistent cough: Fluid accumulation in the lungs may cause a persistent cough or wheezing.
  • Reduced Appetite and Nausea: Heart failure can affect digestion, leading to a loss of appetite and nausea.

Treatment Options
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle is crucial in managing heart failure. This includes maintaining a balanced diet low in sodium, engaging in regular physical activity, quitting smoking, managing stress, and limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Medications: Various medications can help manage heart failure symptoms and improve heart function. These may include diuretics to reduce fluid retention, beta-blockers to slow the heart rate, ACE inhibitors or ARBs to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure, and aldosterone antagonists to reduce fluid buildup.
  • Device-Based Therapies: For advanced heart failure cases, devices such as implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) or cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) devices may be recommended to regulate heart rhythm and improve cardiac function.
  • Surgical Interventions: In some cases, surgical procedures like coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) or heart valve repair or replacement may be necessary to improve blood flow and alleviate strain on the heart.
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation: A structured rehabilitation program can help patients regain strength, improve physical fitness, and manage their condition effectively.


Heart failure is a complex and serious condition that requires comprehensive medical management. By understanding the causes, recognizing the symptoms and seeking appropriate treatment, individuals with heart failure can lead fulfilling lives. Early detection, lifestyle modifications, medical adherence, and regular follow-ups with healthcare providers are essential for optimal management of heart failure. Through ongoing research and medical advancements, the prognosis for heart failure patients continues to improve, offering hope for a brighter future in the fight against this challenging condition.