Woman meditating - header image
Care for today and tomorrow

What is High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a disease. It usually has no symptoms, but high blood pressure can have deadly consequences if not treated. Around 80 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

The Issue With High Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure measures the force pushing outwards on your arterial walls. Your body’s organs need oxygen to survive. Oxygen is carried through the body by blood. When the heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through blood vessels and capillaries. The pressure, blood pressure, is the result of two forces. The first force occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries that are part of the circulatory system. The second force is created as the heart rests between heart beats. These two readings registered as numbers comprise the blood pressure.

Over time, if the force of blood flow is too high, this can cause damage to the tissue that makes up the walls of arteries, which leads to various issues, including:

  • Vascular weakness, making vessels more prone to rupture, which can lead to stroke and aneurysm
  • Vascular scarring, which can create scar tissue that acts as a net for debris such as cholesterol or blood cells
  • Increased risk of blood clots, which can narrow and sometimes block arteries. When these clots break off, heart attacks or stroke can occur
  • Increased plaque build-up, which can cause blood flow to become limited or even cut off. This forces the heart to work harder to deliver blood to your body
  • Tissue and organ damage from narrowed or blocked arteries
  • Increased workload on the circulatory system

When to Seek Medical Treatment

A hypertensive emergency exists when blood pressure reaches levels that are damaging organs. Hypertensive emergencies generally occur at blood pressure levels exceeding 180 systolic OR 120 diastolic, but can occur at even lower levels in patients whose blood pressure had not been previously high.

The consequences of uncontrolled blood pressure in this range can be severe and include:

  • Stroke
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory loss
  • Heart attack
  • Damage to the eyes and kidneys
  • Loss of kidney function
  • Aortic dissection
  • Angina (unstable chest pain)
  • Pulmonary edema (fluid backup in the lungs)
  • Eclampsia

If you get a blood pressure reading of 180 or higher on top or 110 or higher on the bottom, and are having any symptoms of possible organ damage (chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, numbness/weakness, change in vision, difficulty speaking), do not wait to see if your pressure comes down on its own. Seek emergency medical assistance immediately. Call 9-1-1. If you can’t access the emergency medical services (EMS), have someone drive you to the hospital immediately.

Symptoms of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is largely a symptomless condition; therefore, it is vital that you monitor your blood pressure and not assume symptoms will alert you to a problem.

Only when blood pressure readings soar to dangerously high levels (systolic of 180 or higher OR diastolic of 110 or higher) may obvious symptoms occur. Blood pressure this high is known as hypertensive crisis, and emergency medical treatment is needed.

In addition to extreme readings, a person in hypertensive crisis may experience:

  • Severe headaches
  • Severe anxiety
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nosebleeds

Risks for High Blood Pressure

There are several factors that put some people at risk for high blood pressure.

Risks Among Certain Groups:

  • African-Americans
  • Women over 65
  • Children

Other Risk Factors:

  • Family history
  • Advanced age
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor diet, especially one that includes too much salt
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Drinking too much alcohol

Possible Contributing Factors:

Stress

Being in a stressful situation can temporarily increase your blood pressure, but science has not proven that stress causes high blood pressure. Rather, the ways that people who are stressed may manage that stress, such as overeating, drinking, or smoking, may be what contributes to high blood pressure.

Smoking and secondhand smoke

Smoking temporarily raises blood pressure and increases your risk of damaged arteries.

Sleep apnea

This potentially life-threatening sleep disorder causes tissues in the throat to collapse and block the airway, forcing the sleeper to wake up to cough or gulp air, repeatedly throughout the night.

Treatment for High Blood Pressure

While there is no cure, high blood pressure is manageable. There are several things you can do to control your blood pressure:

  • Eat a better diet, which may include reducing salt
  • Enjoy regular physical activity
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage stress
  • Avoid tobacco smoke
  • Take prescription medication as instructed
  • Limiting alcohol, if you drink

Lifestyle modifications are essential and may even reduce your blood pressure without the use of prescription medications. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is critical for the prevention of HBP and an indispensable part of managing it.

By adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, you can:

  • Reduce high blood pressure
  • Prevent or delay the development of HBP
  • Enhance the effectiveness of blood pressure medications
  • Lower your risk of heart attack, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease