Easily Remember the Most Common Cause of Right-Sided Heart Failure

Easy Way to Remember the Most Common Cause of Right-Sided Heart Failure

If you hang around Your Nursing Tutor for longer than 30-seconds, then you usually discover that I think Anatomy & Physiology is the key to being successful in nursing school.  Understanding and remembering the most common cause of right-sided heart failure is a perfect example of why I believe that!

So let’s quickly make sure we’re on the same page with our Cardiac A&P before we discover the most common cause of right-sided heart failure…

Brief Cardiac A&P Review

Easy to understand image of cardiac blood flow

My version of cardiac A&P

If you review my simplified diagram of the heart, you are quickly reminded of how the blood flows through the heart and lungs:

  1. From the Body, blood enters the Vena Cava
  2. Goes from the Vena Cava to the Right Atrium
  3. From the Right Atrium through the Tricuspid Valve
  4. Through the Tricuspid Valve into the Right Ventricle
  5. From the Right Ventricle through the Pulmonary Valve
  6. Through the Pulmonary Valve into the Pulmonary Artery
  7. From the Pulmonary Artery throughout the Lungs
  8. Throughout the Lungs, blood drains into the Pulmonary Vein
  9. From the Pulmonary Vein into the Left Atrium
  10. From the Left Atrium through the Mitral/Bicuspid Valve
  11. Through the Mitral/Bicuspid Valve into the Left Ventricle
  12. From the Left Ventricle through the Aortic Valve
  13. Through the Aortic Valve into the Aorta
  14. From the Aorta throughout the Body

What you need to memorize and remember about cardiac A&P to understand Right-Sided Heart Failure

Easy way to remember blood flow through the heart, and how that applies to the causes of right-sided heart failure.

You HAVE to memorize the major landmarks above that are typed in bold. You HAVE to be able to remember enough about the cardiac A&P that you could sketch your own simple diagram of the heart in only a few seconds. You HAVE to be able to explain how the blood flows through the heart and lungs. 

I’m generally not a huge fan of memorization just for the sake of memorization. But there are times when memorization is essential because it helps us create our own framework of information that we will use to build on later in nursing school.

Memory Tip for Cardiac A&P:

When I was in nursing school, I found it really confusing the one of the heart valves had one name (Tricuspid), but the other valve had two names that were used interchangeably (Mitral = Bicuspid). What finally helped it “stick” in my brain was to think of it like this.

The Tricuspid Valve is made up of 3 flaps (that’s why it’s called TRIcuspid). The Bicuspid Valve is made up of 2 flaps (that’s why it’s called BIcuspid). Since the Bicuspid valve can do it’s job using only two flaps, I imagine that it’s the stronger valve…and that’s why it deserves the special name of Mitral.

It’s a silly little story, but making up silly little stories like these is actually one of the best ways that I teach nursing students how to study in nursing school! It’s also one of the many methods that I teach in the PASS Program, which is the class I created specifically for nursing students to teach them the BEST ways to study in order to succeed.

Trick Question: Which is more common, Left-Sided Heart Failure or Right-Sided Heart Failure?

The answer is Left!

Left-sided Heart Failure is more common, and even if you didn’t already know that, you could make an educated guess based on your knowledge of Cardiac A&P (a great NCLEX strategy, FYI). After all, the left-side of the heart has to work way harder to push blood around the entire body, while the right-side of the heart only has to push blood through the lungs.

Not a very equitable distribution of work, if you think about it 😉

So let’s start with the problem of left-sided heart failure.

In left-sided heart failure, the left-side of the heart is no longer as effective at pushing blood into the body.  Basically, it can only push a little bit of blood at a time. (We’ll save the causes of Left-Sided Heart Failure for another post.)

Now, what does it mean for the right-side of the heart when the left-side can’t do it’s job effectively? Well, there’s nothing wrong with the right-side of the heart (yet), so the right-side of the heart continues to do it’s job and keep pushing blood into and through the lungs. 

However, since the left-side of the heart isn’t moving blood from the heart to the body as quickly as it should, a traffic jam develops on the left-side of the heart. Now the right-side of the heart has to try to do TWO jobs…push the blood through the lungs AND help the left-side push the blood through the body.

And Right-Sided Heart Failure is Most Commonly Caused By…

Left-Sided Heart Failure! It works like this:

  1. The Left-Side of the heart starts pumping blood inefficiently through the body
  2. This causes a back-up of blood in the left-side of the heart
  3. The Right-Side of the heart continues to pump blood as normal
  4. The blood turns into a traffic jam when it gets to the left-side of the heart
  5. The “traffic jam” gets worse and worse, until blood is backed up into the lungs
  6. Now the Right-Side of the heart has to work harder and harder to push the blood, bc it is doing it’s own job AND trying to do the left-side’s job
  7. The Right-Side of the heart gets tired
  8. Right-Sided Heart Failure

This means that the most common cause of Right-sided Heart Failure is: Left-sided Heart Failure.

If you found my diagram and explanation helpful, please Pin this article to your Pinterest board so that more nursing students can benefit! Thank you!

(Article updated August 8, 2018, Originally published June 28, 2012)

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9 Comments

  1. This was easy to understand..after all the years of my dear mom who died at 54 going through two heart operations..steel valves inserted and much more I can relate to the whole scenario ty..

  2. Chantel R.

    This is the best explanation of the heart failures that I’ve read all year and you really just turned on the light bulb for me!! Thank you, your calling is really to teach and I thank you for your website!!

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