Right-Sided Heart Failure: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Right-Sided Heart FailureWhile right-sided heart failure—which is also referred to as pulmonary heart disease and cor pulmonale—isn’t technically considered an illness or medical condition, it’s a process that occurs as a direct result of other potentially serious health conditions. More commonly, right-sided heart failure is directly related to left-sided heart failure.

When the left ventricle in the heart is weakened and stiffens up, it’s no longer able to sufficiently pump blood throughout the body, causing fluid to revert back into the lungs. This places a great deal of insurmountable pressure on the right side of the heart to pump excess blood.


Since the blood flow is essentially moving in the opposite direction that it should be going, it ends up entering back into the main bloodstream and into the veins that are situated in the body’s extremities. This causes a great deal of inflammation in the legs and ankles.

What Causes Right-Sided Heart Failure and What Are the Risk Factors Associated with It?

As mentioned, there are a number of serious illnesses, pre-existing conditions, and other mitigating factors that can be considered causes of right-sided heart failure. To put this matter into perspective, the left and right ventricles within the heart are closely interconnected with one another. If something is amiss on one side of the heart, then the opposite side will inevitably be negatively impacted in the same way.

Due to the fact that the heart plays such an integral part in the survival of other organs and mechanisms throughout the body, any failures or health problems associated with it can directly or indirectly harm other functions within the body as well.

If the left ventricle becomes severely damaged to the extent that it ceases to function normally, then the right ventricle also ceases to function normally. Despite this connection, though, there are other potential risk factors that may lead to right-sided heart failure, including:

  • Lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), or chronic lung disease
  • Left-to-right shunt
  • Pericardial constriction
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Tricuspid regurgitation
  • Pulmonic stenosis
  • Tricuspid stenosis
  • Diabetes
  • Illicit drug addiction, particularly cocaine
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Alcoholism
  • Obesity
  • Sleep Apnea or experiencing sudden shortness of breath while sleeping

In some cases, even if the left ventricle initially appears to be in perfect working condition, the damage the right ventricle endures because of these medical conditions can eventually spread to the opposite side. All of these situations involve either partially or completely blocked blood flow in or out of the heart, which can inevitably cause the blood to regress backward.

Additionally, the following is a list of factors that may increase your risk of suffering right-sided heart failure:

  • Anyone who’s previously suffered a heart attack, particularly men between 50 and 70 years of age, has a greater chance of enduring right-sided heart failure
  • Congenital heart defects because they can sometimes prevent sufficient blood flow
  • Race—African American men are more likely to experience right-sided heart failure than people of other races
  • Certain medications such as treatments for diabetes or chemotherapy
  • Heart arrhythmia

Symptoms and Complications of Right-Sided Heart Failure

As is typically the case with most other medical conditions or abnormalities, right-sided heart failure symptoms can be exhibited to varying degrees. They can be mild, moderate, or severe depending on the severity and advancement of the disease that’s causing it. The following is a comprehensive list of right-sided heart failure signs and symptoms that you should look out for if you’re at risk:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Sudden and frequent shortness of breath
  • Anorexia induced by complete lack of appetite
  • Massive weight gain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Constant urge to urinate
  • Nausea and lightheadedness
  • Heavy and uncontrollable coughing and breathlessness
  • Having a hard time focusing on tasks at hand
  • Extreme weakness felt throughout the body
  • Fainting
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Intense chest pains
  • Coughing pinkish-white phlegm

If you or someone you know experiences a combination of any of these symptoms, then you should seek immediate medical attention as they could be potentially fatal complications of right-sided heart failure. After carefully examining and administering the appropriate medical tests, your doctor should be able to determine the root cause of the problem and treat it accordingly.

Although there’s no known cure for heart failure in general, there are ways of managing compartmental heart failure. In most cases, even the most severe outlooks can potentially be improved as long as you adhere to your doctor’s dietary and lifestyle instructions.

Right-Sided Heart Failure Diagnosis and Management

There are a number of tried and true techniques physicians can use to diagnose right-sided heart failure and other types of heart conditions. These methods are also instrumental in determining the correct and most appropriate treatment for right-sided heart failure depending on the patient’s medical history as well as the cause and severity of their condition.

Here are all of the methods doctors use to diagnose right-sided heart failure:

  • Stress testing during exercise to determine whether the patient can exercise and raise their heart rate to a normal level for the level of activity they’re doing.
  • Blood tests that look for specific substances that are typically found in the bloodstream when a patient is suffering from right-sided heart failure while also checking other major organs for signs of abnormality.
  • Pulmonary function testing measures the quality of your breath and how well your lungs are working as you breathe in and out of a tube that’s connected to a measuring device.
  • Cardiac CT scans produce digital x-ray images of your heart so that your doctor can get a clear visual of what’s going on.
  • Myocardial biopsy is a procedure in which your doctor removes a portion of the heart muscle by inserting a thin tube through an entry point on your body and attaching it to your heart.
  • Chest x-rays to examine the how the lungs and heart are functioning.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) ultrasounds capture moving images of the heart to showcase the blood pressure and whether it’s pumping as it should.
  • Coronary angiography involves your doctor injecting a blue dye into your arteries and heart chambers so that your doctor can examine the way in which blood flows through your heart and determine whether there are any abnormalities.
  • Cardiac catheterizations may be performed in conjunction with coronary angiography. Much like a myocardial biopsy, your doctor will insert a long and narrow tube through either your groin or arm directly into your heart. X-ray moving images are recorded to detect any blockages in your heart.

Right-Sided Heart Failure Prevention Methods

There are certain preventative measures that you can incorporate into your lifestyle to help lower your chances of suffering right-sided heart failure. These include the following:

  • Reducing your stress levels as much as possible
  • Maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle
  • Eating a healthy diet complete with all necessary vitamins and nutrients
  • Keeping an eye on your blood sugar levels, particularly if you’re diabetic
  • Schedule physicals and checkups on a regular basis
  • Limit your drinking
  • Quit smoking
  • Follow the instructions of your doctor and take all medications as prescribed
  • If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea

Your doctor can make specific preventative recommendations based on your medical history and level of risk.

Right-Sided Heart Failure Treatment and Prognosis

Right-sided heart failure prognosis largely depends on the type of condition that’s causing it as well as the intensity of the symptoms that are associated with it. Keep in mind that every patient may have a completely different experience and, in some cases, right-sided heart failure can be life-threatening. As long as you closely adhere to the instructions of your doctor and consistently schedule follow up appointments to check up on your condition, then you should be able to manage it.

A series of right-sided heart failure treatments are available to help offset some of the symptoms you might be experiencing. Mild cases may warrant the use of certain medications that can help support and maintain proper cardiac functions and even reduce the presence of certain symptoms.

A heart transplant or surgical insertion of a ventricular assist device may be necessary for more critical or life-threatening cases. However, most doctors will only recommend this if the medications they’ve prescribed aren’t working to their full potential.

Regardless of what the cause or symptoms are, right-sided heart failure is a very serious condition that could lead to even worse health problems if neglected or mismanaged for too long. Think of your heart as the epitome of your body’s most important mechanisms; if it stops working, then sufficient amounts of blood can’t be delivered to the rest of your body.



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Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.



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Acute Heart Failure (AHF): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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