The American Heart Association estimates that one of three Americans have have hypertension. And yet many of us don’t know what it is, why it’s dangerous, and what the treatment options are.
What Is Hypertension?
Hypertension is a fancy medical word for high blood pressure.
Your blood carries nutrients and oxygen to your body, and picks up waste like carbon dioxide. The heart pumps the blood through “pipes” – blood vessels called arteries- and the blood returns to the heart through veins.
Blood pressure is the “push” of blood against the walls of the arteries. It is a good thing to have blood pressure – if blood pressure is zero, it means there’s no blood moving through the arteries! But like the water pipes in a house, if the blood is being pushed too hard against the walls of the vessels, they might be damaged. Extra pressure can also contribute to creating blood clots that block needed blood supply to the brain.
Hypertension can lead to dangerous conditions including heart failure (when the heart has to work too hard just to get the blood moving around the body), stroke (interference with the blood flow in the brain), and kidney disease, to name a few.
How Do I know If I’m At Risk?
While having a family history of hypertension may increase your risk for hypertension, not all people with hypertension have family members with it. Hypertension is generally “asymptomatic” – most people don’t have symptoms as they develop it – so checking your blood pressure should be a part of regular healthcare.
How Is High Blood Pressure Diagnosed?
When your blood pressure is taken at a health clinic or doctor’s office, the result is a mysterious number like this:
120 / 80
The first/top number is called the “systolic” (sis-tall-ick) blood pressure; the second/bottom, the diastolic (dye-as-tall-ick) pressure. The American Heart association recommends that the top number in adults should be no higher than 120 and the bottom no higher than 80 (children have different ranges of healthy blood pressure for different age groups – ask your pediatrician if you’re concerned). If your systolic pressure is between 140 to 159 and/or your diastolic pressure is between 90 and 99, that’s considered mild hypertension. Moderate to severe hypertension includes systolic pressures over 160 and/or diastolic over 100.
What Are My Treatment Options?
Treatment depends on the severity of the high blood pressure. Keep in mind that a very stressful day can increase your blood pressure readings, as (for some people) can a trip to your doctor’s office. So if your blood pressure reading is on the border between healthy and hypertensive, you may need to make a return visit.
If you have a pre-hypertensive blood pressure after a repeat check, your doctor or nurse practitioner may recommend a trial of lifestyle changes that can help lower blood pressure including:
-a lower-salt diet
-increased intake of potassium
-moderation of alcohol consumption
However, if you have mild to severe hypertension (Stage 1 or 2), or if you have pre-hypertension in combination with conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, or diabetes, your health care provider may prescribe medications.
There are many different hypertension medications. They don’t all work the same way, and different ones work differently for different people, so your provider will probably have you check in to make sure the medication first prescribed is working for you. Sometimes two medications can compliment each other, so your healthcare provider may prescribe two kinds.
Once medication has been prescribed sit down with your health care provider or pharmacist and a list of all the medications you take (including over the counter medications) to make sure that there are no harmful interactions between them and tyour blood pressure medicines. In addition, keep in mind that most blood pressure medications have side effects; ask your healthcare provider to write down likely side effects for you, noting side effects and symptoms that indicate that you should come in to have your dose changed.
Most importantly, medication is not enough! Make sure to modify your lifestyle to help the medications do a good job.
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“Percentage of adults aged ≥20 who were ever told they had high blood pressure” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, Center for Disease Control, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, volume 51, issue 21, 2002
“Screening for high blood pressure: recommendations and rationale,”U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, American Family Physician Volume 68, issue 10, p. 2019-22
“The Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure,” The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institiute (NHLBI), National Institutes of Health, Volume 3, no. 5233, 2003