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HomeHealth A-Z High Blood Pressure
High Blood Pressure
Most people don't know they have high blood pressure until they visit a doctor for a routine exam or during an appointment for another problem.

High Blood Pressure

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Definition of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is when there is too much force exerted on the blood vessel walls as the heart pumps blood thru the body.  High blood pressure is also called hypertension.

Description of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a medical condition that occurs when the blood pressure on the arteries is persistently too strong.  The arteries are the blood vessels that carry the blood from the heart as it pumps blood to the body's tissues and organs.  It is normal for blood pressure to rise and fall during the day, but when blood pressure stays high it is considered high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is unhealthy because it makes the heart work harder as it pumps blood thru the body.  It can lead to hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis) and increases the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, eye damage (retinopathy), and kidney (renal) failure.

High blood pressure (hypertension) is classified as either essential (primary) hypertension or secondary hypertension.  When no specific medical cause is found to explain a person's high blood pressure, it is called essential hypertension.  Essential hypertension accounts for ninety-five percent of all cases. Secondary hypertension is less common and is high blood pressure that occurs as a result of another medical condition such as certain tumors or kidney disease.

The blood pressure measurement consists of two numbers, systolic pressure and diastolic pressure, which is often written as a fraction, i.e. 120/80 for normal blood pressure.  The systolic number, which is the top number, is the measurement of the pressure of blood on the artery walls as the heart contracts and pumps the blood into the arteries.  The diastolic number, which is the bottom number, is the measurement of the minimum pressure of blood on the artery walls between heartbeats when the heart is relaxed and filling with blood.

Normal blood pressure is 120/80 or below, blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89 is considered pre-hypertension, and blood pressure of 140/90 or above is considered high blood pressure.

Causes and Risk Factors of High Blood Pressure

The exact cause of a person's high blood pressure may not always be able to be determined, but there are several factors known to increase blood pressure, some that can be controlled and some that cannot.  Some of the known factors that cannot be controlled are a family history of high blood pressure, race, and aging.  Other factors are resistance to insulin, being overweight and obesity, high intake of sodium (salt), low intake of potassium, calcium or magnesium, drinking three or more alcoholic drinks a day, lack of regular exercise or physical activity, sleep apnea and sleep-disordered breathing, depression, long-term use of NSAID pain medications such as naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) or COX-2 inhibitors such as celecoxib (Celebrex).  Although emotional tension and stress can elevate blood pressure temporarily, this is not the same as being diagnosed with the medical condition of high blood pressure.

Symptoms of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is called a "silent killer" because it does not usually cause any noticeable signs or symptoms.  Most people don't know they have high blood pressure until they visit a doctor for a routine exam or during an appointment for another problem.  High blood pressure develops slowly and can cause serious organ damage even before a person is aware of the condition.  If severe high blood pressure develops it may cause headaches (especially early morning headaches that pulsates behind the eyes), visual disturbances, nausea, and vomiting.

Diagnosis of High Blood Pressure

A diagnosis of high blood pressure is usually based on three or more high blood pressure readings that are measured on separate occasions about one to two weeks apart.  A diagnosis of high blood pressure is not usually made based on only one measurement except in very severe cases.  When blood pressure remains at 140/90 or greater it is considered high blood pressure.

Treatment of High Blood Pressure

It is important to treat high blood pressure in order to prevent severe health consequences.  Lifestyle changes will include losing excess weight, exercising, following the DASH diet, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol, limiting salt intake.  The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a low-fat and low-saturated-fat diet focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods.  Depending on a person's overall health and blood pressure measurement, medications may also be prescribed to help lower blood pressure.

Prevention of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure affects one in four American adults.  While not all causes of high blood pressure can be controlled, many lifestyle choices can help a person prevent high blood pressure.  It is beneficial to maintain a healthy weight, exercise on a regular basis, limit alcohol, limit salty and processed foods, and make sure the body receives an adequate amount of calcium, potassium, and magnesium in the diet.

External Resources

American Heart Association

Cedars-Sinai Health System

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