Why Do COPD and Heart Failure Go Hand in Hand?

An illustration depicting heart failure.
An illustration depicting heart failure.. SCIEPRO/Getty Images

Studies suggest that COPD and heart failure frequently coexist. Is this because having one places you at greater risk for the other? Or could it be that they share a common risk factor? Here's how COPD and heart failure are linked.

What is Heart Failure?

Heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart pumps inefficiently over a long period of time, often leads to a host of related symptoms and complications.

Similar to COPD, people with heart failure can be relatively stable, or they can experience exacerbations of heart failure, when the heart doesn't function quite properly, and symptoms worsen.

Heart failure is among the most prevalent of all heart conditions, occurring when the heart is no longer able to pump an adequate supply of blood to the cells, tissues and organs of your body. There are many heart conditions that can lead to heart failure, including coronary artery disease and valvular heart disease. Learn more about the different types of heart failure.

COPD and Heart Failure: Confusing the Symptoms

According to research, 14 million Americans have COPD and 5 million have chronic heart failure. Despite the fact that both share smoking as a common risk factor, the sheer number of people who are diagnosed with either condition likely explains why they commonly co-exist.

Unfortunately, many people who have both conditions don't realize it, as the symptoms can be similar.

For example, when a patient who doesn't have existing lung disease visits the doctor complaining of shortness of breath and/or fatigue during exercise, she is likely to undergo a host of cardiac imaging tests designed to help the doctor establish a diagnosis of heart failure.

On the other hand, when a patient with stable COPD, meaning she's not having a COPD exacerbation, complains that she's experiencing shortness of breath or fatigue when trying to exercise, the doctor is likely to attribute her symptoms to COPD, and many times, won't order cardiac imaging tests.

Not only does this delay a diagnosis of co-existing heart failure, if present, but it also delays the patient's getting treatment for heart failure, which can lead to serious complications that can affect a patient's prognosis.

What To Do If You Think You May Have Heart Failure

Because the symptoms of heart disease and heart failure frequently overlap with symptoms of COPD, it's important that you pay close attention to your body and report any of the following findings to your doctor:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fatigue, lethargy or daytime sleepiness
  • Muscle wasting
  • Dyspnea, orthopnea or paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea
  • Swelling in the lower extremities (more common in heart failure)

Just like COPD, early diagnosis of heart disease or heart failure is important, because the earlier you're diagnosed, the earlier you can seek treatment. Untreated heart problems can worsen your COPD symptoms and your overall prognosis. In fact, people with both conditions often fare worse, having longer hospital stays and a higher mortality rate than people who have COPD or heart problems alone.

Treatment for Heart Disease and Heart Failure

Treatment for heart disease or heart failure differs from treatment for COPD, which is why it's so important to be accurately diagnosed properly. The advancement of medical science lends itself to a number of excellent treatment options for heart disease and heart failure. Learn more about your treatment options by reading the following:

Another treatment option that patients are strongly encouraged to participate in is cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. The treatment has been found to reverse the skeletal muscle abnormalities that accompany these conditions and can ultimately improve your prognosis.

If you are a COPD patient who's also been diagnosed with heart failure, talk to your doctor today about starting a physical exercise training program or a formal cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program in your area.


Jelic, Sanja MD, Le Jemtel, Thierry H. MD. Diagnostic Usefulness of B-Type Natriuretic Peptide and Functional Consequences of Muscle Alterations in COPD and Chronic Heart Failure. CHEST 2006; 130;1220-1230. DOI 10.1378/chest.130.4.1220.

Jelic, Sanja MD, Le Jemtel, Thierry H. MD, Padeletti, Margherita MD. Diagnostic and Therapeutic Challenges in Patients With Coexistent Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Chronic Heart Failure. American College of Cardiology Foundation. Vol. 49, No. 2, 2007. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2006.08.046.

Fogurus, Richard N. MD. Heart Health Center. About.com.

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