Congestive Heart Failure v. Heart Attack?

I don’t understand the technical difference between these two terms. To the layman, heart failure IS heart failure. Can someone explain the variations in types of heart failure? Or, is a heart attack one specific type of heart failure within a general class labeled as “congestive heart failure”? - Jinx :confused:

IANAD but my mother in law died of congestive heart failure. It’s basically a condition in which the heart pumps less forcefully over time, allowing fluid to build up in the lungs, around the heart and in other tissues. People suffering from congestive heart failure often have swollen hands, feet and legs.

Gradually the strain of trying to move all that fluid becomes too much for the heart.

A “heart attack” is generally understood to be the sudden failure, and even actual death, of a portion of the heart tissue. This can be because the tissue loses oxygen because the artery feeding that part of the heart muscle clogged via cholesterol, a blood clot or some other obstruction.

I’ll let some of the real medical authorities draw a better distinction.

Congestive heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump as much blood as the body needs. One result is that fluid backs up into the lungs, making oxygen intake less efficient. The body’s response is usually to increase the size of the heart or increase its beating rate. I only know this because my last cat died from it. X-rays showed his heart was something like 3 or 4 times bigger than normal. I recently watched a fascinating special on (I think) TLC showing some amazing new breakthrough on CHF but I can’t remember what it was.

A heart attack, as I recall, is when blood supply to one of the heart muscles is impeded so it doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to do work. Your heart lets you know about this by sending pain-o-grams up into your chest and the surrounding area.

Heart attack is not a specific medical term; it’s a catch-all for almost anything that suddenly happens to the heart. Nomrally includes infarcts (death of some heart muscle), fibrillation (arrhythmic, useless-for-the-purpose-of-moving-blood vibration of heart muscle), really bad angina (severe coronary artery occlusion resulting in near-death of heart muscle), mysterious stopping of the heart for no apparent good reason, and even [insert correct medical term here] (suddenly popping a hole in the heart wall).

CHF isn’t a heart attack because it’s slow; although the final stopping of the heart can still be called a heart attack.

I, too, ANAD, but I did briefly hold an EMT permit.

A heart attack happens when the heart muscles
do not get enough oxygen and die.
Strokes are like heart attacks but kill the brain.
Something restricts the flow of blood to the heart or brain. Plack build up in the arteries or narrowing of the arteries are just some of the reasons.

Congestive heart failure happens when the lungs cannot put oxygen in the blood.

Sorry, nametag, but that’s incorrect. At least for the medical community in the US. Heart attack means the myocardium (heart muscle) is ischemic and beginning to die. Cardiac standstill is not the same as a heart attack, tho one may cause the other.

Other posters are correct about CHF vs. heart attack. The first is pump failure. Pump failure can happen due to dying or dead muscle, but it can also happen from bad valves or dilated (yet non-ischemic) muscle. So one doesn’t automatically equal the other.

2002 M-W Medical dictionary


One of my diagnoses, amongst others, is congestive heart failure. (I even have a little booklet called “Living with Congestive Heart Failure”). kunilou is right about the swollen feet and legs (edema) - I had to go in the hospital last month for a radical water retention reduction - my normal weight is 186 and I was up to 242 and when I left the hospital I was at 193.

Other symptoms include (and God knows I’ve had them all):

• Difficulty breathing (and/or wheezing) during normal activities or exercise that did not cause breathing problems in the past.
• Shortness of breath (mine had been both while just standing or especially when lying down (orthopnea), leading to severe insomnia).
• A dry, hacking cough, especially when lying down (again, leading to severe insomnia).
• Dizziness, fainting, or feeling tired or weak.
• Chest pain (angina), rapid heart rate (heart palpitations).
• Rapid weight gain (caused by water retention).
• Increased urination at night.
• Fainting or near-fainting (syncope).
• Abdominal swelling, tenderness, or pain (again, caused by water retention, usually, unless there are kidney problems as well).

…you get the drift. Unfortunately, most people who have congestive heart failure exhibit no symptoms - they have “sudden heart failure” (as opposed to “gradual heart failure”) and usually die and it’s usually diagnosed upon autopsy as a cardiac infarction (heart attack).

I’ve had four “heart attacks” - all in the same region - and all I know, really, is that they cause variable amounts of damage to the heart muscle. Mine have all been on the left side of my heart and I have 22% functionality there.

Congestive heart failure is usually treatable - I’ve had bypass surgery and stent implants and take a boat load of medications, but (for me) the only real hope for longevity greater than 4-6 months is a transplant and I’m to meet with a transplant review board on 03/03/'03.

BTW - even though “Congestive Heart Failure” is still a medical diagnoses, most cardiologists will ‘supplement’ that diagnosis with another, such as cardiomyopathy, etc. Some people have enlarged hearts and some don’t - CHF is a pretty broad term that can cover a number of actual conditions of the heart.

I’ll have to ask my cardiologist about the real definition of “heart attack” - I know what it feels like and the damage it can do, but I’ve never asked what it actually is!

-Gradually Failing in Birmingham, AL-

That may be how doctors see it, but I’ll bet that patients use it differently, and I was really thinking of the common usage.

And sometimes, it can be “all of the above.” My current diagnoses include:

• Coronary Artery Disease;
• Congestive Heart Failure;
• Chronic Ischemic Heart Disease;
• Hyperlipidemia;
• Hypertension and;
• Left Ventricular Dysfunction.

I just need a new heart - if anyone is willing…


Heart attack, or myocardial infarction, is different from arrhythmia, angina and sudden cardiac death.

Both heart attacks and angina are a mismatch between the oxygen needs of the heart and the amount of oxygen heart cells actually get. With angina, the mismatch is temporary. In a heart attack, heart cells die because of a lack of oxygen.

Congestive heart failure, “CHF”, is when the heart pump is inefficient, hence blood backs up into the lungs. It is initially treated with ace-inhibitors and water pills, but can be very hard to treat when associated with kidney or liver damage that often coexists. A heart attack can (and often does not) cause CHF.