Hypertension: High Blood Pressure

Checking BP for signs of hypertension

By Crystal Maggard, RN Oxford Cardiopulmonary Coordinator

Have you checked your blood pressure lately??

Did you know that long-term elevated blood pressure is called “the silent killer?”

High blood pressure is a common condition in many people, many of whom often are not even aware they have it. Blood pressure is determined both by the amount of blood your heart pumps and the amount of resistance in your arteries—the more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries, the higher your blood pressure.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. You can have high blood pressure for years without any symptoms or any problems. However, damage to blood vessels and your heart can develop and cause life threatening problems.

Fortunately, high blood pressure can be easily detected and controlled with the help of your physician. The first step is simply becoming aware of your elevated blood pressure.

Symptoms

Even if blood pressure readings reach dangerously high levels, most people with high blood pressure have no signs or symptoms, thus, the name “the silent killer.”

Some people may have:

  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nosebleeds

However, these symptoms aren’t specific, and they usually don’t occur until high BP has reached a life-threatening level.

Causes

There are two types of high blood pressure.

Primary (Essential) Hypertension

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

Secondary Hypertension

Some people have high BP caused by an underlying condition. This type of BP, called secondary hypertension, tends to appear suddenly and cause higher BP than 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:

  • 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.
  • High blood pressure is particularly common among African Americans, often developing at an earlier age than others.
  • Family history
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not being physically active
  • Using tobacco
  • Too much salt (sodium) in your diet
  • Too little potassium in your diet
  • Too little vitamin D in your diet
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Stress
  • Certain chronic conditions. Kidney disease, diabetes and sleep apnea, among others, can be a risk factor.

Complications

Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to:

  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Aneurysm
  • Heart failure
  • Weakened and narrowed blood vessels in your kidneys
  • Thickened, narrowed or torn blood vessels in the eyes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Trouble with memory or comprehension

What You Can Do

Talk with your doctor.

You should have your physician obtain a BP reading at least every two years starting at age 18. If you’re 40 or older—or you’re age 18-39 with a high risk of high blood pressure—ask for a yearly BP reading with an appropriate-sized arm cuff. Your doctor will likely recommend more frequent readings if you’ve already been diagnosed with high BP or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Children age 3 and older will usually have BP checked as a part of their yearly exam.

Blood pressure measurements fall into four general categories:

  • Normal blood pressure – Below 120/80 mm Hg.
  • Prehypertension – Systolic pressure ranging from 120 to 139 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure ranging from 80 to 89 mm Hg. Prehypertension tends to get worse over time.
  • Stage 1 hypertension – Systolic pressure ranging from 140 to 159 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure ranging from 90 to 99 mm Hg.
  • Stage 2 hypertension – Systolic pressure of 160 mm Hg or higher or a diastolic pressure of 100 mm Hg or higher.

If you fall into the pre-hypertension or hypertension categories, it is important to talk to your physician about getting your BP under control.