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Chronic heart failure and bladder and bowel issues

This fact sheet has been developed for people with chronic heart failure who experience bladder and/or bowel problems (continence problems). It explains why you may be experiencing problems and provides information about where you can get further help.

Chronic heart failure or cardiomyopathy (pronounced card-ee-oh-my-op-athee) is a long-term condition of the heart muscle.

This condition can affect the quality of a person’s day to day life. Some of the symptoms of heart failure include:

  • tiredness
  • shortness of breath
  • low blood pressure, and
  • swelling of the ankles (from fluid build-up).

Treatment for heart failure can include, fluid and salt restriction, and a range of important medicines, which include diuretics (commonly known as ‘fluid’ or ‘water’ tablets2) such as Frusemide or Lasix.

Some of the symptoms and treatments of heart failure may lead to bladder and bowel problems such as:

  • frequently passing urine in the toilet (frequency) i.e. more than 8 times a day
  • feeling a sudden, strong desire to pass urine (urgency)
  • leaking urine while rushing to the toilet (urge incontinence)
  • waking several times overnight to pass urine (nocturia) i.e. more than 2 times per night3, or experiencing small, hard and infrequent bowel motions that often require straining or pushing to pass (constipation4)

More than half of people with heart failure experience continence issues such as urgency and urge incontinence5. Depression and a lowered quality of life can also occur in people with heart failure, as well as people with continence problems2,6. People may go out less often because of worrying about having to find a toilet frequently and quickly. Having an ‘accident’ and leaking urine can be very embarrassing. People may use a continence product (e.g. a pad) for protection in case they leak. It may be difficult to know where to buy these pads and which one works best.

Bladder problems

Frusemide (Lasix) is a common type of medicine that people with heart failure take. It helps reduce the build-up of excess fluid in the body (e.g. around the ankles). It is a fast-acting medicine that causes the kidneys to produce urine, which quickly fills the bladder, often with large volumes of urine. This causes people to go to the toilet more often and in more of a rush. Sometimes people may start to leak urine while rushing to the toilet.

These medicines are an important part of managing heart failure and should not be stopped unless your heart failure specialist instructs you to do so. If you notice continence problems linked to your medicine talk to your specialist about changing the time of day that you take them. This may be adjusted to better fit in with your day to day activities.

People with heart failure can feel tired due to less blood being pumped around the body by a weakened heart. Having to get up several times during the night can interrupt a person’s sleep making them feel even more tired.

Rushing to the toilet, day or night can also be difficult when a person easily becomes short of breath. Dizziness from low blood pressure can affect a person’s ability to get out of bed at night with the need to pass urine. Elderly people have also been shown to be at increased risk of falling, because of needing to go to the toilet often, rushing to the toilet and getting up at night.7-8

Bowel problems

Constipation can be a problem in people with heart failure due to the following:

  • reduced fluid intake
  • reduced mobility (e.g. walking and other physical activities)
  • medications
  • loss of appetite (and poor fibre intake), or reduced blood flow to the digestive tract

It is important to reduce and if possible, avoid constipation. Straining or pushing to pass a bowel motion may contribute to chest pain, shortness of breath or an irregular heart rate in a person with heart failure. Straining also weakens pelvic floor muscles which are important for good bladder and bowel control. Constipation can make a person feel uncomfortable and bloated, and it can irritate the bladder causing the urgent need to pass urine.

How to manage your bladder or bowel problems

Some of the symptoms and treatments for heart failure may contribute to bladder or bowel problems. These treatments have been proven to be safe and effective. It is important to maintain your treatment as prescribed by your specialist and discuss any concerns with them.

Unfortunately, many of the bladder or bowel control problems experienced by people with heart failure may not be cured. Despite this, assessment and treatment by a continence health professional may help reduce your problems to a more manageable level and improve the quality of your day to day life.

A continence advisor may assist by:

  • identifying other contributing factors to your continence problems that may be changed
  • easing the impact of nocturia by recommending toileting equipment such as a non- spill urine bottle
  • improving constipation with lifestyle changes such as the type of fluids you drink, how to best sit on the toilet, going to the toilet as soon as you feel the urge to go and laxative advice
  • assessing your eligibility for the provision of continence products
  • providing advice about the best continence product to use to manage any leakage

For more information

Speak to your doctor or cardiac nurse specialist.

Speak to the coordinator of your local Cardiac Rehabilitation Programme.

Visit the New Zealand Continence Association website www.continence.org.nz.

Speak to a Continence Advisor.

Call the Continence Helpline on 0800 650 659. The Helpline can provide information about bladder and bowel control problems, local continence advisors, as well as send you a wide range of free information resources.

Author and contributors

This fact sheet was developed and written by Kerry Poole, Continence Nurse Consultant with the support of the Western Continence Service, Western Health. Kerry is also a cardiac rehabilitation coordinator at The Royal Melbourne Hospital.


Associate Professor Leeanne Grigg, Director of Cardiology, The Royal Melbourne Hospital

Dr James Wong, Cardiologist, Cardiomyopathy (CHF) Service, The Royal Melbourne Hospital

Monica Kerlin, Cardiomyopathy (CHF) Service Coordinator/Nurse, The Royal Melbourne Hospital


  1. National Heart Foundation Australia. Living well with Chronic Heart Failure, 2008
  2. National Heart Foundation of Australia and the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand. Guidelines for the prevention, detection and management of chronic heart failure in Australia, 2006
  3. www.bladderbowel.gov.au/doc/english/02%20Good%20bladder%20habits.pdf (good bladder habits for everyone)
  4. www.bladderbowel.gov.au/living/bowelp/constipation.htm
  5. Palmer MH, Hardin SR, Behrend S, Collins SK-R, Madigan CK, Carlson JR. Urinary Incontinence and Overactive Bladder in Patients With Heart Failure. Journal of Urology 2009:Vol. 182 196-202
  6. HACC/MASS Continence Project. First Steps in the Management of Urinary Incontinence in Community-Dwelling Older People: A clinical practice guideline for the primary clinicians (registered nurses and allied health professionals). Second Edition 2007
  7. Thompson J. Falls and Incontinence: evaluation of a quality management project. Australian and New Zealand Continence Journal 2007:Vol13, No.1:18-21

For all enquiries: Continence NZ: Continence Helpline: Call 0800 650 659 Email: info@continence.org.nz.

This document has been developed by and remains the property of, the Continence Foundation of Australia.

© Continence Foundation of Australia 2015