Learn the symptoms and treatment of this condition — which raises your risk of heart attack and stroke — and the lifestyle changes that can lower the risk.
High blood pressure (hypertension) 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. A blood pressure reading is given in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). It has two numbers.
You can have high blood pressure for years without any symptoms. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. 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.
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.
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 18 to 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's 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.
There are two types of high blood pressure.
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.
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:
High blood pressure has many risk factors, including:
Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage your heart. Having more than one drink a day for women and more than two drinks a day for men 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 and two drinks a day for men. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
Sometimes pregnancy contributes to high blood pressure as well.
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 and lack of exercise — contribute to high blood pressure.
The excessive pressure on your artery walls caused by high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels as well as your organs. The higher your blood pressure and the longer it goes uncontrolled, the greater the damage.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to complications including:
Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and do a physical examination. The doctor, nurse or other medical assistant will place an inflatable arm cuff around your arm and measure your blood pressure using a pressure-measuring gauge.
Your blood pressure generally should be measured in both arms to determine if there is a difference. It's important to use an appropriate-sized arm cuff.
Blood pressure measurements fall into several categories:
Both numbers in a blood pressure reading are important. But after age 50, the systolic reading is even more important. Isolated systolic hypertension is a condition in which the diastolic pressure is normal (less than 80 mm Hg) but systolic pressure is high (greater than or equal to 130 mm Hg). This is a common type of high blood pressure among people older than 65.
Because blood pressure normally varies during the day and may increase during a doctor visit (white coat hypertension), your doctor will likely take several blood pressure readings at three or more separate appointments before diagnosing you with high blood pressure.
Your doctor may ask you to record your blood pressure at home to provide additional information and confirm if you have high blood pressure.
Home monitoring is an important way to confirm if you have high blood pressure, to check if your blood pressure treatment is working or to diagnose worsening high blood pressure.
Home blood pressure monitors are widely available and inexpensive, and you don't need a prescription to buy one. Home blood pressure monitoring isn't a substitute for visits to your doctor, and home blood pressure monitors may have some limitations.
Make sure to use a validated device, and check that the cuff fits. Bring the monitor with you to your doctor's office to check its accuracy once a year. Talk to your doctor about how to start checking your blood pressure at home.
Devices that measure your blood pressure at your wrist or finger aren't recommended by the American Heart Association because they can provide less reliable results.
If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend tests to confirm the diagnosis and check for underlying conditions that can cause hypertension.
Changing your lifestyle can help control and manage high blood pressure. Your doctor may recommend that you make lifestyle changes including:
But sometimes lifestyle changes aren't enough. If diet and exercise don't help, your doctor may recommend medication to lower your blood pressure.
The type of medication your doctor prescribes for high blood pressure depends on your blood pressure measurements and overall health. Two or more blood pressure drugs often work better than one. Sometimes finding the most effective medication or combination of drugs is a matter of trial and error.
You should aim for a blood pressure treatment goal of less than 130/80 mm Hg if:
Ask your doctor what your blood pressure treatment goal should be. Also, the ideal blood pressure treatment goal can vary with age and health conditions, particularly if you're older than age 65.
Medications used to treat high blood pressure include:
Diuretics. Diuretics, sometimes called water pills, are medications that help your kidneys eliminate sodium and water from the body. These drugs are often the first medications tried to treat high blood pressure.
There are different classes of diuretics, including thiazide, loop and potassium sparing. Which one your doctor recommends depends on your blood pressure measurements and other health conditions, such a kidney disease or heart failure. Diuretics commonly used to treat blood pressure include chlorthalidone, hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide) and others.
A common side effect of diuretics is increased urination, which could reduce potassium levels. If you have a low potassium level, your doctor may add a potassium-sparing diuretic — such as triamterene (Dyazide, Maxide) or spironolactone (Aldactone) — to your treatment.
Calcium channel blockers. These medications — including amlodipine (Norvasc), diltiazem (Cardizem, Tiazac, others) and others — help relax the muscles of your blood vessels. Some slow your heart rate. Calcium channel blockers may work better for older people and people of African heritage than do ACE inhibitors alone.
Don't eat or drink grapefruit products when taking calcium channel blockers. Grapefruit increases blood levels of certain calcium channel blockers, which can be dangerous. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you're concerned about interactions.
If you're having trouble reaching your blood pressure goal with combinations of the above medications, your doctor may prescribe:
Beta blockers. These medications reduce the workload on your heart and widen your blood vessels, causing your heart to beat slower and with less force. Beta blockers include acebutolol, atenolol (Tenormin) and others.
Beta blockers aren't usually recommended as the only medication you're prescribed, but they may be effective when combined with other blood pressure medications.
Renin inhibitors. Aliskiren (Tekturna) slows the production of renin, an enzyme produced by your kidneys that starts a chain of chemical steps that increases blood pressure.
Due to a risk of serious complications, including stroke, you shouldn't take aliskiren with ACE inhibitors or ARBs.
If your blood pressure remains stubbornly high despite taking at least three different types of high blood pressure drugs, one of which usually should be a diuretic, you may have resistant hypertension.
You're also considered to have resistant hypertension if you have controlled high blood pressure but are taking four different types of medications at the same time to achieve that control. If you do, your doctor should investigate the possibility of a secondary cause of the high blood pressure.
Having resistant hypertension doesn't mean your blood pressure will never get lower. If you and your doctor can determine the cause, a more effective treatment plan can be created to help you meet your goal blood pressure.
Treating resistant hypertension may involve many steps, including:
You should always take blood pressure medications as prescribed. Never skip a dose or abruptly stop taking your blood pressure medication. Suddenly stopping certain blood pressure drugs, such as beta blockers, can cause a sharp increase in blood pressure (rebound hypertension).
If you skip doses because you can't afford the medications, because you have side effects or because you simply forget to take your medications, talk to your doctor about solutions. Don't change your treatment without your doctor's guidance.
Researchers continue to study catheter-based ultrasound and radiofrequency ablation of the kidney's sympathetic nerves (renal denervation) as a treatment for resistant hypertension. Early studies showed some benefit, but more-robust studies found that the therapy does not significantly lower blood pressure in people with resistant hypertension. More research is underway to determine what role, if any, this therapy may have in treating hypertension.
Lifestyle changes can help you control and prevent high blood pressure, even if you're taking blood pressure medication. Here's what you can do:
Decrease the salt in your diet. Aim to limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day or less. However, a lower sodium intake — 1,500 mg a day or less — is ideal for most adults.
While you can reduce the amount of salt you eat by putting down the saltshaker, you generally should also pay attention to the amount of salt that's in the processed foods you eat, such as canned soups or frozen dinners.
Increase physical activity. Regular physical activity can help lower your blood pressure, manage stress, keep your weight under control and reduce your risk of many health conditions. If you have high blood pressure, consistent moderate- to high-intensity workouts can lower your top blood pressure reading by about 11 mm Hg and the bottom number by about 5 mm Hg.
Aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. For example, try brisk walking for about 30 minutes most days of the week. Or try interval training, in which you alternate short bursts of intense activity with short recovery periods of lighter activity. Aim to do muscle-strengthening exercises at least two days a week.
Monitor your blood pressure at home. Home blood pressure monitoring allows you to keep a daily log of blood pressure measurements. Your doctor can review the information to determine if your medication is working or if you're having complications. Home blood pressure monitoring isn't a substitute for visits to your doctor. Even if you get normal readings, don't stop or change your medications or alter your diet without talking to your doctor first.
If your blood pressure is under control, ask your doctor about how often you need to check it.
Although diet and exercise are the most appropriate tactics to lower your blood pressure, some supplements also may help lower it. However, more research is needed to determine the potential benefits. These supplements include:
Researchers are also studying whether vitamin D can reduce blood pressure, but evidence is conflicting. More research is needed.
While it's best to include these supplements in your diet as foods, you can also take supplement pills or capsules. Talk to your doctor before adding any of these supplements to your blood pressure treatment. Some supplements can interact with medications, causing harmful side effects, such as an increased bleeding risk that could be life-threatening.
You can also practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or mindfulness, to help you relax and reduce your stress level. These practices may temporarily reduce your blood pressure.
High blood pressure isn't a problem that you can treat and then ignore. It's a condition you need to manage for the rest of your life. To keep your blood pressure under control:
Sticking to lifestyle changes can be difficult, especially if you don't see or feel any symptoms of high blood pressure. If you need motivation, remember the risks associated with uncontrolled high blood pressure. It may help to enlist the support of your family and friends as well.
If you think you may have high blood pressure, make an appointment with your doctor 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. Avoid eating, drinking caffeinated beverages and smoking right before your test. Plan 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.
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:
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.
It's never too early to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods and getting more exercise. These are main ways to protect yourself against high blood pressure and its complications, including heart attack and stroke.
August 17th, 2021