Hypertension 101: Understanding Your High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition in which the force of the blood against the walls of the arteries is consistently too high. Blood pressure is measured with systolic pressure (the higher number) and diastolic pressure (the lower number).

A regular blood pressure reading is typically around 120/80 mm Hg. A 140/90 mm Hg or higher reading is considered high blood pressure.

Hypertension is a serious health condition that can lead to heart attack, stroke and other deadly illnesses. But it’s also a highly treatable condition.

It’s usually called the “silent killer” because you can’t feel it happening. But if it’s not treated, high blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart attack and kidney failure.

What are the causes of high blood pressure?

The exact cause of hypertension is often not clear, but it can be caused by several factors, such as:

  1. Genetics – hypertension tends to run in families.
  2. Age – As people age, their blood vessels become less elastic, increasing the risk of hypertension.
  3. Obesity – Carrying extra weight can cause the heart to work harder and increase blood pressure.
  4. Smoking – Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and tobacco can constrict blood vessels, raising blood pressure.
  5. Unhealthy diet – Consuming too much sodium and not enough potassium can contribute to hypertension.
  6. Lack of physical activity – A sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of hypertension.
  7. Chronic stress can lead to increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels, which can cause hypertension.

What are the signs and symptoms of hypertension?

Hypertension is often referred to as the “silent killer” because it typically has no noticeable symptoms. As a result, most people with hypertension may have the condition for years without realizing it. However, some people can have symptoms such as:

  1. Headaches: hypertension can cause frequent, persistent headaches, particularly in the front of the head.
  2. Dizziness or lightheadedness: hypertension can cause blood vessels in the brain to constrict, reducing blood flow and leading to dizziness or lightheadedness.
  3. Blurred vision: Hypertensive retinopathy, caused by damage to the blood vessels in the eyes due to hypertension, can cause blurry vision.
  4. Nose bleeds: hypertension can cause the blood vessels in the nose to burst more easily.
  5. Shortness of breath: High blood pressure can make it harder for the heart to pump blood, leading to shortness of breath, especially during physical activity.
  6. Chest pain: Hypertension can cause the heart to work harder and put pressure on the chest.
  7. Blood in the urine – Damaged blood vessels in the kidneys can cause blood in the urine.

How can you know that your blood pressure is high?

Many people may have hypertension for years without realizing it. The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is to have it checked.

Blood pressure can be checked using a sphygmomanometer, which consists of an inflatable cuff that collapses and then releases the artery under the cuff in a controlled manner. A mercury or aneroid manometer is used to measure the pressure. It can also be checked using an electronic blood pressure monitor.

Adults should generally check their blood pressure at least once every two years. However, if your blood pressure is found to be high, your healthcare provider will likely recommend that you have it checked more often.

You can also check blood pressure at home using a digital device, which can be purchased at most drug stores. However, it is still important to confirm the readings with a healthcare provider and follow their instructions on how often to check at home and other preventive and management options.

The American Heart Association has set a guideline for hypertension that’s based on age and gender:

  • Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg
  • Elevated BP is when the systolic is between 120-129/80 mmHg
  • Stage 1 hypertension is 130-139/80-89 mmHg
  • Stage 2 hypertension is 140/90 mmHg or higher

In addition, other tests are needed to assess if there are secondary causes such as kidney disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and so on for hypertension. Further investigations are required to determine the target organ damage, such as kidney, eyes and heart.

What are the treatment options for high blood pressure?

Treatment options for hypertension include lifestyle changes and medication. The goal of treatment is to lower and control blood pressure to reduce the risk of severe health problems such as heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease.

  1. Lifestyle changes: Making lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet low in salt, saturated fat, and cholesterol, getting regular physical activity, losing weight if your body weight is high, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption can help lower hypertension.
  2. Medications: Several classes of drugs can be used to treat hypertension, including:
    • Diuretics: These medications help the body eliminate excess salt and water.
    • ACE inhibitors and ARBs: These medications help relax blood vessels and reduce the workload on the heart.
    • Calcium channel blockers: These medications help relax the smooth muscles in the blood vessels and decrease the heart’s contraction force.
    • Beta-blockers: These medications help reduce the workload on the heart and lower blood pressure by blocking the action of certain hormones.
  3. Combination therapy: Combining two or more medications may be more effective than taking a single drug.

Can I prevent getting high blood pressure?

While you cannot completely prevent the development of hypertension, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing the condition.

  • Maintaining a healthy diet: Eating a diet low in salt, saturated fat, and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help lower your blood pressure.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Having a higher body weight increases your risk of hypertension, so losing weight through a combination of diet and exercise can help lower your blood pressure.
  • Getting regular physical activity: Regular physical activity can help lower your blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, on most days of the week.
  • Quit smoking: Nicotine in cigarettes and tobacco products can constrict blood vessels and cause hypertension.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can raise blood pressure. So, if you drink, it’s essential to limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
  • Managing stress: Stress can cause an increase in blood pressure. Find ways to manage stress, such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and other forms of relaxation.
  • Monitoring blood pressure and visiting your doctor regularly: Monitoring and seeing your doctor regularly can help detect hypertension early and prevent complications.

It’s important to note that while these steps can help reduce your risk of developing hypertension, they are not guaranteed. In addition, some people may still develop the condition despite these lifestyle changes. Therefore, working with your healthcare professional to monitor and address any issues is essential.

The Bottom Line

Hypertension is often referred to as the “silent killer” because it typically has no noticeable symptoms. However, it damages end organs such as the heart, eyes and kidneys, causing devastating complications.

Therefore, once detected, it is essential to adjust your lifestyle.  Also, work with a healthcare professional to determine the best treatment plan.

Treatment plans will be based on individual needs, medical history, and the underlying cause of hypertension. Lifestyle changes are the first line of treatment, and they are mandatory. After that, medications will be prescribed if necessary. The effectiveness of treatment will be continuously monitored, and the treatment will be adjusted if needed.

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