High Blood Pressure

What is high blood pressure?

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High blood pressure is a condition wherein a person’s blood pressure increases to unhealthy levels. Known clinically as hypertension, high blood pressure occurs when blood flowing through the body encounters too much resistance, or when the force of blood is too high. This can be a result of narrowed arteries, which can be caused by a variety of factors, both genetic and environmental.

A common condition, hypertension affects nearly half of all American adults, though many do not know they have it. High blood pressure often develops over several years without symptoms. However, even though a person may not feel symptoms, the condition can cause damage to various organs and blood vessels. If there is a family history of high blood pressure, it is important to get yours regularly checked. Most doctors will check blood pressure during physical exams, but many pharmacies also offer services. If you have high blood pressure, you will need to receive treatment through lifestyle changes or medications. Talk to your doctor about how to manage and control your high blood pressure.

What causes high blood pressure?

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There are two types of high blood pressure, each with a different cause. Primary hypertension develops over time and has no single identifiable cause. This is the more common form of the condition. While researchers are still unsure what specifically causes this form of high blood pressure, many think that genes, sudden physical changes, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, like poor diet and a lack of physical activity, contribute. If you know about high blood pressure and its symptoms, this is the form of hypertension with which you are likely familiar.

The other type of high blood pressure is called secondary hypertension. This form of the condition develops quickly, often as a result of a separate condition. Secondary hypertension can become more severe than primary hypertension. If you have any of the following conditions, you are at an increased risk of developing this type of high blood pressure.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Kidney disease
  • Thyroid problems
  • Chronic alcohol use
  • Adrenal gland problems

Additionally, if a medication lists high blood pressure as a potential side effect, it is referring to secondary hypertension. This is most common in decongestants, cold remedies, birth control pills, pain relievers, and some prescription drugs. If you experience the onset of high blood pressure symptoms with a new medication, stop taking the drug and tell your doctor immediately.

Are there any high blood pressure risk factors?

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As with many conditions relating to cardiovascular health, certain risk factors can increase a person’s chance of developing hypertension. Some common high blood pressure risk factors include the following.

  • Family history
  • Age, as the risk of developing hypertension increases over time
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Tobacco use
  • Prolonged alcohol use
  • High-sodium diet
  • Low-potassium diet
  • High stress levels

Some chronic conditions, such as kidney disease and diabetes, are also known to increase a person’s risk of developing high blood pressure. In some cases, pregnancy may also contribute to its development. Finally, those taking medication for which high blood pressure is a side effect are more likely to experience the condition.

What are common signs of high blood pressure?

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Most people with this condition will not experience high blood pressure symptoms. It can take years – even decades – for hypertension to make itself known. Even then, common high blood pressure symptoms may be mistaken for separate conditions.

Still, it is important to understand the symptoms of severe hypertension. This can include any of the following.

  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Visual changes
  • Blood in urine
  • Nosebleeds

When these symptoms arise as a result of high blood pressure, they require immediate medical attention. However, the best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to receive regular readings from a doctor. This can help you understand whether your symptoms are a result of high blood pressure or a separate condition.

How is high blood pressure diagnosed?

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High blood pressure does not often present with symptoms, which means you will need to visit a health care provider to receive a diagnosis. During the visit, your doctor will use a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff to measure potential hypertension. They will often take two readings at separate appointments before making a definitive diagnosis.

When a doctor checks for high blood pressure, they are reading two numbers: systolic and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure occurs when the heart beats, pumping the blood. Diastolic pressure occurs between heartbeats, when the organ is at rest. The combination of these numbers results in a blood pressure reading.

In some cases, a doctor may also conduct a variety of additional tests to rule out separate, potentially underlying conditions. This can include any of the following.

  • Cholesterol screening (and other blood tests)
  • Urine test
  • Kidney or heart ultrasound
  • Electrocardiogram

What do the numbers in a blood pressure reading mean?

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While the American College of Cardiology recently changed blood pressure categories, most doctors will use the same numbers to diagnose hypertension. Those who have a systolic pressure reading of 140 or higher have high blood pressure. Additionally, those with a diastolic pressure reading of 90 or higher have high blood pressure. So, to illustrate, somebody with a blood pressure reading of 150/80 or 135/100 will have high blood pressure.

Children’s blood pressure readings are often measured differently. The physician will measure a child’s reading against a chart that includes common information for others in their age, weight, and sex group. For adults, however, there are five categories to help define blood pressure readings.

  • Healthy: A Healthy blood pressure reading is less than 120/80.
  • Elevated: Elevated blood pressure readings have the systolic number between 120 and 129 and the diastolic number less than 80. At this stage, you won’t likely need medication. Rather, the doctor will encourage certain lifestyle changes.
  • Stage 1 Hypertension: This stage occurs when the systolic number is between 130 and 139 while the diastolic number is between 80 and 89.
  • Stage 2 Hypertension: This stage occurs when the systolic number is 140 or high and the diastolic number is 90 or higher.
  • Hypertensive Crisis: Blood pressure readings above 180/120 are dangerous and will require immediate medical attention.

What are treatments for high blood pressure?

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Once a person receives a high blood pressure diagnosis, they will work with their doctor to develop a treatment plan. Unless a person has reached Stage 2 hypertension, doctors are unlikely to prescribe medication. Rather, lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, lower sodium intake, and increased physical activity, can work to decrease blood pressure.

However, if a doctor decides additional treatment is necessary, they will likely prescribe high blood pressure medication. The process of finding a medication that works with your body and lifestyle can be long, but some popular options are listed below.

  • Diuretics: The bloat and excess fluid that results from high sodium levels can cause high blood pressure. Diuretics are used to help the kidneys remove excess sodium from the body, which can then lower blood pressure.
  • Betablockers: These medications make the heart beat slower and with less force. By reducing the amount of blood pumped through the heart, the medication can lower blood pressure.
  • Calcium channel blockers: These medications can block calcium from entering the heart, which can result in lower blood pressure. This medicine also relaxes blood vessels, which can further lower pressure.
  • ACE inhibitors: Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, also known as ACE, prevent the body from producing large quantities of angiotensin. This chemical causes blood vessels and artery walls to narrow.
  • Alpha-2 agonists: This medication can change the nerve impulses that may cause blood vessels to tighten. This, in turn, can help blood vessels to relax.

If your doctor thinks your high blood pressure is caused by a separate condition, they will also work to treat the underlying disease.

How to prevent high blood pressure?

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There are several lifestyle choices and changes people can make to slow or prevent high blood pressure from developing. Importantly, those at risk for developing high blood pressure should maintain a healthy weight. This can be done by increasing physical activity, which can also prevent hypertension. Many doctors suggest at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity. Exercise can lower weight, reduce stress, and reduce the risk of developing additional health problems – all important for preventing high blood pressure.

Eating a diet low in sodium and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also help prevent high blood pressure. Avoiding tobacco use, limiting alcohol consumption, and practicing healthy stress management techniques are also useful. If you’re not sure which lifestyle changes will help manage your condition, talk to your doctor.

Importantly, if you think you have high blood pressure, ask your doctor for a diagnostic screening. Receiving a reading is the only way to know whether you have the condition, and a doctor can provide essential guidance for living a healthier lifestyle.