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High Blood Pressure Information

High Blood Pressure

Definition

High blood pressure is a common condition in which the long-term force of the blood against your artery walls is high enough that it may eventually cause health problems, such as heart disease.

Blood pressure is determined both by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.

You can have high blood pressure (hypertension) for years without any symptoms. Even without symptoms, damage to blood vessels and your heart continues and can be detected. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke.

High blood pressure generally develops over many years, and it affects nearly everyone eventually. Fortunately, high blood pressure can be easily detected. And once you know you have high blood pressure, you can work with your doctor to control it.

Symptoms

Most people with high blood pressure have no signs or symptoms, even if blood pressure readings reach dangerously high levels.

A few people with high blood pressure may have headaches, shortness of breath or nosebleeds, but these signs and symptoms aren’t specific and usually don’t occur until high blood pressure has reached a severe or life-threatening stage.

When to see a doctor

You’ll likely have your blood pressure taken as part of a routine doctor’s appointment.

Ask your doctor for a blood pressure reading at least every two years starting at age 18. If you’re age 40 or older, or you’re age 18-39 with a high risk of high blood pressure, ask your doctor for a blood pressure reading every year. Blood pressure generally should be checked in both arms to determine if there is a difference. It’s important to use an appropriate-sized arm cuff. Your doctor will likely recommend more frequent readings if you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood pressure or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Children age 3 and older will usually have blood pressure measured as a part of their yearly checkups.

If you don’t regularly see your doctor, you may be able to get a free blood pressure screening at a health resource fair or other locations in your community. You can also find machines in some stores that will measure your blood pressure for free.

Public blood pressure machines, such as those found in pharmacies, may provide helpful information about your blood pressure, but they may have some limitations. The accuracy of these machines depends on several factors, such as a correct cuff size and proper use of the machines. Ask your doctor for advice on using public blood pressure machines.

Causes

There are two types of high blood pressure.

Primary (essential) hypertension

For most adults, there’s no identifiable cause of high blood pressure. This type of high blood pressure, called primary (essential) hypertension, tends to develop gradually over many years.

Secondary hypertension

Some people have high blood pressure caused by an underlying condition. This type of high blood pressure, called secondary hypertension, tends to appear suddenly and cause higher blood pressure than does primary hypertension. Various conditions and medications can lead to secondary hypertension, including:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Kidney problems
  • Adrenal gland tumors
  • Thyroid problems
  • Certain defects in blood vessels you’re born with (congenital)
  • Certain medications, such as birth control pills, cold remedies, decongestants, over-the-counter pain relievers and some prescription drugs
  • Illegal drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines
  • Alcohol abuse or chronic alcohol use

Risk Factors

High blood pressure has many risk factors, including:

  • Age. The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age. Through early middle age, or about age 45, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop high blood pressure after age 65.
  • Race. High blood pressure is particularly common among blacks, often developing at an earlier age than it does in whites. Serious complications, such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, also are more common in blacks.
  • Family history. High blood pressure tends to run in families.
  • Being overweight or obese. The more you weigh the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls.
  • Not being physically active. People who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction and the stronger the force on your arteries. Lack of physical activity also increases the risk of being overweight.
  • Using tobacco. Not only does smoking or chewing tobacco immediately raise your blood pressure temporarily, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Secondhand smoke also can increase your blood pressure.
  • Too much salt (sodium) in your diet. Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
  • Too little potassium in your diet. Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don’t get enough potassium in your diet or retain enough potassium, you may accumulate too much sodium in your blood.
  • Too little vitamin D in your diet. It’s uncertain if having too little vitamin D in your diet can lead to high blood pressure. Vitamin D may affect an enzyme produced by your kidneys that affects your blood pressure.
  • Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than two drinks a day for men and more than one drink a day for women may affect your blood pressure.

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

  • Stress. High levels of stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure. If you try to relax by eating more, using tobacco or drinking alcohol, you may only increase problems with high blood pressure.
  • Certain chronic conditions. Certain chronic conditions also may increase your risk of high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.

Although high blood pressure is most common in adults, children may be at risk, too. For some children, high blood pressure is caused by problems with the kidneys or heart. But for a growing number of kids, poor lifestyle habits, such as an unhealthy diet, obesity and lack of exercise, contribute to high blood pressure.

Complications

The excessive pressure on your artery walls caused by high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels, as well as organs in your body. The higher your blood pressure and the longer it goes uncontrolled, the greater the damage.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to:

  • Heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to a heart attack, stroke or other complications.
  • Aneurysm. Increased blood pressure can cause your blood vessels to weaken and bulge, forming an aneurysm. If an aneurysm ruptures, it can be life-threatening.
  • Heart failure. To pump blood against the higher pressure in your vessels, your heart muscle thickens. Eventually, the thickened muscle may have a hard time pumping enough blood to meet your body’s needs, which can lead to heart failure.
  • Weakened and narrowed blood vessels in your kidneys. This can prevent these organs from functioning normally.
  • Thickened, narrowed or torn blood vessels in the eyes. This can result in vision loss.
  • Metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is a cluster of disorders of your body’s metabolism, including increased waist circumference; high triglycerides; low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol; high blood pressure; and high insulin levels. These conditions make you more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
  • Trouble with memory or understanding. Uncontrolled high blood pressure may also affect your ability to think, remember and learn. Trouble with memory or understanding concepts is more common in people with high blood pressure.

Remember

If you think you may have high blood pressure, make an appointment with your family doctor or health care provider to have your blood pressure checked.

No special preparations are necessary to have your blood pressure checked. You might want to wear a short-sleeved shirt to your appointment so that the blood pressure cuff can fit around your arm properly. You might want to avoid caffeinated food and drinks right before your test. You may want to use the toilet before having your blood pressure measured.

Because some medications, such as over-the-counter cold medicines, pain medications, antidepressants, birth control pills and others, can raise your blood pressure, it might be a good idea to bring a list of medications and supplements you take to your doctor’s appointment. Don’t stop taking any prescription medications that you think may affect your blood pressure without your doctor’s advice.

Because appointments can be brief, and because there’s often a lot to discuss, it’s a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here’s some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.

What to Expect

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:

  • Do you have a family history of high cholesterol, high blood pressure or heart disease?
  • What are your diet and exercise habits like?
  • Do you drink alcohol? How many drinks do you have in a week?
  • Do you smoke?
  • When did you last have your blood pressure checked? What was your blood pressure measurement then?

What you can do

  • Write down any symptoms you’re experiencing. High blood pressure seldom has symptoms, but it’s a risk factor for heart disease. Letting your doctor know if you have symptoms like chest pains or shortness of breath can help your doctor decide how aggressively your high blood pressure needs to be treated.
  • Write down key personal information, including a family history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you’re taking.
  • Take a family member or friend along, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
  • Be prepared to discuss your diet and exercise habits. If you don’t already follow a diet or exercise routine, be ready to talk to your doctor about any challenges you might face in getting started.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For high blood pressure, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What kinds of tests will I need?
  • Do I need any medications?
  • What foods should I eat or avoid?
  • What’s an appropriate level of physical activity?
  • How often do I need to schedule appointments to check my blood pressure?
  • Should I monitor my blood pressure at home?
  • What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you’re suggesting?
  • I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
  • Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you’re prescribing for me?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me?
  • What websites do you recommend visiting?

In addition to the questions that you’ve prepared to ask your doctor, don’t hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don’t understand something.

For more information about high blood pressure, visit our partners at the Mayo Clinic.

(Information sourced from the Mayo Clinic High Blood Pressure Information pages.)

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