Skip to main navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer For Medicare For Providers For Brokers For Employers Español For Individuals & Families: For Individuals & Families Medical Dental Other Supplemental Explore coverage through work How to Buy Health Insurance Types of Dental Insurance Open Enrollment vs. Special Enrollment See all topics Shop for Medicare plans Member Guide Find a Doctor Log in to myCigna
Home Knowledge Center Wellness Library Heart Failure: Compensation by the Heart and Body

Heart Failure: Compensation by the Heart and Body

Overview

Heart failure means that your heart muscle doesn't pump as much blood as your body needs. Because your heart can't pump well, your heart and your body try to make up for it. This is called compensation.

Your body has a remarkable ability to compensate for heart failure. The body may do such a good job that many people don't feel symptoms in the earlier stages of heart failure. It is only when your body isn't able to compensate enough that you will start to have symptoms.

Compensation may help your body adjust to the effects of heart failure in the short term. But over time it can make heart failure worse by further enlarging the heart and reducing how well the heart can pump.

Compensation in the body

With heart failure, the heart doesn't pump as well as it should. So your body doesn't get enough blood and oxygen. When this occurs, the body believes that there isn't enough fluid inside its vessels. The body's hormone and nervous systems try to make up for this. They increase blood pressure, hold on to salt (sodium) and water in the body, and increase the heart rate. These responses are the body's attempt to compensate for the poor blood circulation and the backup of blood.

The nervous system.

If your body senses that the brain and vital organs aren't getting enough blood, the sympathetic nervous system starts working to get more blood to your brain and organs. This system releases substances called catecholamines into the bloodstream. These substances cause the blood vessels to constrict and speed up the heart rate. At the same time, the arteries that supply the brain and vital organs widen to carry the increased blood flow.

Hormone systems.

When the body thinks it needs more fluid in its blood vessels, it releases specific chemicals (renin, angiotensin, and aldosterone) that cause the blood vessels to constrict. These hormones also cause the body to hold on to more sodium and water. This adds fluid to your circulatory system. This fluid becomes part of the blood circulating throughout your system.

Compensation in the heart

Your heart's goal in compensating for heart failure is to maintain your cardiac output. Cardiac output is the amount of blood your heart is able to pump in 1 minute. The problem in heart failure is that the heart isn't pumping out enough blood each time it beats. This is called low stroke volume. To maintain your cardiac output, your heart can try to beat faster (increase your heart rate) or pump more blood with each beat (increase your stroke volume).

Increase your heart rate.

Your brain signals your heart to beat faster by sending messages to your heart's electrical system, which controls the timing of your heartbeat. When your cardiac output is low, your adrenal glands also release more norepinephrine (adrenaline). It travels in the bloodstream and stimulates your heart to beat faster. Beating faster helps to maintain cardiac output as the stroke volume falls. But a faster heart rate can be counterproductive because it allows less time for the ventricle to fill with blood after each heartbeat. Also, a very fast heart rate can weaken the heart muscle over time.

Increase stroke volume.

To increase its stroke volume, your heart can try to:

  • Get more blood into your heart.
    • If your left ventricle isn't doing a good job pumping blood out, your heart can try to compensate by allowing more blood to fill the ventricle before it pumps. The heart does this by expanding its size (dilating) to increase its volume. This form of compensation may be helpful at first. But as the heart gets bigger and bigger, there is more and more tension on the walls of the heart to pump out the blood inside it. This increases the strain on the heart, making its function worse over time.
  • Pump harder.
    • Your heart can pump harder by forming stronger, thicker muscle. This thickening of your heart muscle is called hypertrophy. It can help your heart pump more forcefully and increase your stroke volume. But hypertrophy of the heart muscle increases the heart's need for oxygen and other nutrients. Over time, these needs can outstrip the blood supply to the heart and can make the heart muscle even weaker. And hypertrophy of the walls of the heart can make diastolic function worse by making it harder for the heart to relax properly. This limits how well the heart can fill with blood, which can also further reduce cardiac output.

When compensation stops working

If your body can no longer compensate for heart failure, you will start to have symptoms. There are two major types.

  • Congestive symptoms are caused by the backup of blood into the lungs and the other organs of the body. These symptoms include shortness of breath and swelling in the ankles and belly.
  • Low-output symptoms are caused by the inability of the heart to generate enough cardiac output. This leads to reduced blood flow to the brain and other vital organs. These symptoms may include lightheadedness, fatigue, and low urine output. If the cardiac output is very low, this can damage organs, particularly the kidneys.

Your body can compensate for heart failure for a long time, often for many years. But how long compensation lasts can vary quite a bit. It depends on the cause of your heart failure and whether you have other medical problems.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Related Links

Heart Failure

<cipublic-spinner variant="large"><span>Loading…</span></cipublic-spinner>

Page Footer

I want to...

Get an ID card File a claim View my claims and EOBs Check coverage under my plan See prescription drug list Find an in-network doctor, dentist, or facility Find a form Find 1095-B tax form information View the Cigna Glossary Contact Cigna

Audiences

Individuals and Families Medicare Employers Brokers Providers

Secure Member Sites

myCigna member portal Health Care Provider portal Cigna for Employers Client Resource Portal Cigna for Brokers

Cigna Company Information

About Cigna Company Profile Careers Newsroom Investors Suppliers Third Party Administrators International Evernorth

 Cigna. All rights reserved.

Privacy Legal Product Disclosures Cigna Company Names Customer Rights Accessibility Non-Discrimination Notice [PDF] Language Assistance [PDF] Report Fraud Sitemap

Disclaimer

Individual and family medical and dental insurance plans are insured by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (CHLIC), Cigna HealthCare of Arizona, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Illinois, Inc., and Cigna HealthCare of North Carolina, Inc. Group health insurance and health benefit plans are insured or administered by CHLIC, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (CGLIC), or their affiliates (see a listing of the legal entities  that insure or administer group HMO, dental HMO, and other products or services in your state). Accidental Injury, Critical Illness, and Hospital Care plans or insurance policies are distributed exclusively by or through operating subsidiaries of Cigna Corporation, are administered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company, and are insured by either (i) Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (Bloomfield, CT); (ii) Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”) (Philadelphia, PA); or (iii) New York Life Group Insurance Company of NY (“NYLGICNY”) (New York, NY), formerly known as Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York. The Cigna name, logo, and other Cigna marks are owned by Cigna Intellectual Property, Inc. LINA and NYLGICNY are not affiliates of Cigna.

All insurance policies and group benefit plans contain exclusions and limitations. For availability, costs and complete details of coverage, contact a licensed agent or Cigna sales representative. This website is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

Selecting these links will take you away from Cigna.com to another website, which may be a non-Cigna website. Cigna may not control the content or links of non-Cigna websites. Details