What's The Difference Between Heart Failure And A Heart Attack?

Don't get confused between the two.

New figures from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) show that the number of heart failure hospital visits has increased by more than a third in the last 10 years.

While 107,000 patients visited hospital with symptoms related to heart failure between 2004 and 2005, approximately 146,000 heart failure patients attended hospital between 2014 and 2015.

But what exactly is heart failure and how is it different from a heart attack?

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Heart Attack

"A heart attack is a medical emergency, and is caused by a clot forming in one of the three coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle, effectively blocking blood flow to the heart muscle," Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the BHF tells The Huffington Post UK.

"Time is critical in restoring blood flow as delay leads to heart cell death and scaring of the heart muscle."

The BHF advise that symptoms of heart attack can vary from one person to another, but the most common signs to look out for are:

  • chest pain: tightness, heaviness, pain or a burning feeling in your chest

  • pain in arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach: for some people, the pain or tightness is severe, while other people just feel uncomfortable

  • sweating

  • feeling light-headed

  • becoming short of breath

  • feeling nauseous or vomiting

Dr Knapton says if you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack, it's important to call an ambulance as soon as possible.

"The ambulance will come along and make an assessment," he says.

"If it’s likely you’re having a heart attack they will give you an aspirin - which is an anti-platelet drug meaning it alters the stickiness of the blood and reduces its tendency to clot - and they’ll take you straight to a specialist cardiac centre."

Here, heart specialists will be able to perform relevant treatment such as a coronary angioplasty, which helps improve the blood supply to your heart muscle by widening narrowed coronary arteries and inserting a small tube called a stent.

Heart Failure

In contrast to heart attack being defined as a "medical emergency", heart failure is categorised as a "chronic condition".

"It is caused by the heart not pumping effectivity so that the heart is not able to pump out sufficient blood to meet the body’s need of oxygen and nutrients," Dr Knapton explains.

He adds that confusion between the two heart conditions often occurs as heart attack is one of the most common causes of long-term heart failure.

According to the BHF, the main symptoms of heart failure are:

  • shortness of breath: when you are being active or at rest

  • swelling: of your feet, ankles, stomach and lower back areas

  • fatigue: feeling unusually tired or weak

"The treatment is two-fold. One is to diagnose the underlying cause - as if there is one treating that may make things better," Dr Knapton explains.

"Secondly, giving people medication to improve symptom control. It doesn’t cure the disease as heart failure is an incurable condition, but the cause may be curable, even if the condition itself isn’t."

If medication does not appear to be effective, patients will ultimately receive a heart transplant, although this is not common due to the lack of healthy hearts available from donors.

Although having a previous heart attack is one of the most common causes of heart failure, the BHF advises that other causes of heart failure include:

  • high blood pressure

  • cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle)

  • heart valve problems

  • alcohol or recreational drugs

  • an uncontrolled irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia)

  • congenital heart conditions (ones you’re born with)

  • a viral infection affecting the heart muscle

  • some cancer treatments

While the vast majority of heart failure patients will be living with non-emergency, chronic heart failure, Dr Knapton says it's also possible to experience acute heart failure.

"People with heart failure can decompensate where the heart failure becomes critical," he explains.

"They usually present with a sudden onset of fluid buildup in the lungs as the heart is not pumping properly and you get a back pressure into the lungs.

"That causes acute breathlessness, frothing in the mouth and loss of consciousness and it is a medical emergency."

A person with acute heart failure will be admitted to hospital, given oxygen, intravenous diuretics and possibly drugs to stimulate the heart to pump harder.

The team at Nuffield Health have created the below video to help you decide if you have a healthy heart. Alternatively, visit the BHF website for more information about heart attack, heart failure or other heart conditions.


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