We have heard of the terms “heart failure” and “heart attack” but are often unsure whether or not they mean the same. Strictly speaking, heart failure is different from a heart attack, and the difference is very basic.
A heart attack (medical term: myocardial infarction) takes place when a blood clot or a fatty, atherosclerotic deposit suddenly blocks one of the coronary arteries. When this happens, blood and oxygen are cut off from the part of the heart muscle directly supplied by that particular artery. Consequently, the deficiency in oxygen results in the destruction of the cells in the affected section of the heart muscle.
On the other hand, heart failure takes place when the heart fails in its function of pumping enough blood to meet the body’s requirements. A heart failure occurring in the left side of the heart (the part of the heart that pumps oxygenated blood from the lungs to the body) results in the backing up and accumulation of fluids in the lungs. A heart failure occurring in the right side of the heart (the part of the heart that pumps “used” blood back to the lungs) causes fluids to back up in the body tissues. Congestive heart failure (left- and right-sided heart failure taking place at the same time) can cause severe reductions in blood flow to the extent that body organs fail to function properly.
There can be a number of causes to heart failure. For example, heart failure can be the result of the scarring of the heart muscle from a heart attack. It can also be the result of any one of the different cardiac diseases, such as arrhythmias (alteration in heart rhythms, either in force or time), high blood pressure, congenital heart defects, heart valve disease, and cardiomyopathy (a structural or functional disease of the heart muscle characterized by obstructive damage to the heart).
Any one of the conditions mentioned in the preceding paragraph can place on the heart additional burden for it to bear. In spite of the fact that the heart may, at first, offset the stress, its ability to pump may eventually be impaired, and perceptible indications of heart failure become gradually manifest. The principal symptoms of heart failure are coughing and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, and abdominal pain.
Another fundamental difference between a heart attack and heart failure is that the former, once it actually occurs, calls for immediate medical attention; that is, the heart attack victim must be brought at once to the emergency room of a hospital where a doctor will attend to him immediately. This urgency, however, may not be necessary in the case of heart failure. What is initially important in heart failure is to treat the underlying disease or whatever it is that is causing the heart to fail in functioning normally.
Doctors may likewise prescribe certain drugs with the aim of increasing the strength of the contractions of the heart, and thus make the heart work more efficiently. The type of drug the doctor will prescribe to treat heart failure will depend on the specific problem. If, for example, excess water is the problem, he will prescribe a diuretic, such as hydrochlorothiazide (an example is the brand name Esidrix of Novartis Pharmaceuticals). If it requires improvement of heart strength and rhythm, he will most likely prescribe digoxin (an example is the brand name Lanoxin of GlaxoSmithKline).
1. “Heart Failure”, on FamilyDoctor.org (online) – http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/heartdisease/basics/119.html
2. “Myocardial infarction”, on the Wikipedia (online) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myocardial_infarction
3. “Heart Failure”, on the Wikipedia (online) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_failure