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What is High Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of blood against the inside walls of your arteries. If your arteries become narrow or hardened, the pressure of the blood inside goes up, causing high blood pressure (hypertension).

About one in three US adults, nearly 68 million, has high blood pressure. High blood pressure can damage your arteries, reduce blood flow to your organs, and make your heart work harder. If not controlled, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, and other health problems.

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it’s important to control it as soon as possible. In most cases, high blood pressure is controlled using both lifestyle change and medications.

Symptoms

Many people may not experience any symptoms of high blood pressure. If blood pressure or hypertension becomes severe however, signs may include:

  • Headaches
  • Trouble breathing
  • Bloody nose

When to See a Doctor

Your primary care provider will routinely check your blood pressure, however if you experience severe headaches, difficulty breathing, or frequent nosebleeds you should call your doctor.

Causes

Most commonly, blood pressure develops gradually over many years. Certain things can increase your risk for high blood pressure:

  • Family history
  • Age
  • Race
  • Inactivity
  • Diet
  • Weight
  • Smoking/tobacco use
  • Stress
  • Medications

Diagnosis and Tests

To measure your blood pressure, your health care provider will wrap a special cuff around your arm. The cuff is attached to a machine or gauge. When the cuff is inflated, it measures the pressure in your blood vessels in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

Blood pressure is measured with 2 numbers, for example, “120 over 80” (written as 120/80). The first number is your systolic pressure (when your heart beats). The second number is your diastolic pressure (when your heart rests between beats).

Your health care provider will check your blood pressure several times to determine if you have high blood pressure on a regular basis.

Treatments

If your blood pressure is high, your doctor may recommend two different options to help control it:

  • Begin a lifestyle change and medication at the same time.
  • Begin with lifestyle change alone for three months. If you’re able to bring your blood pressure into control, you can continue this plan as long as your blood pressure remains in control. If your blood pressure is not controlled with lifestyle change alone, you will need to add medications. Depending on your situation, either of these options can be a good choice.

You can manage your BP with MAWDS “MAWDS” is a word that can help you manage your risk factors and your blood pressure. It means:

  • Medication — Take your medicine. The best way to manage your blood pressure is to take your medicine every day, even if you feel fine. Make sure you understand how and when to take your medicines. Remember that most people with high blood pressure do not have symptoms. And even if your blood pressure has reached its goal, it may not stay there without your medicines. Tell your doctor about any side effects.
  • Activity — Stay active every day. Staying active is one of the best ways to control your blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, people who are active have up to a 50% decreased risk of developing high blood pressure. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise almost every day.
  • Weight — Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Losing even a small amount of weight can lower your risk. The best ways to reach and stay at a healthy weight are to be active and eat healthy foods.
  • Diet — Eat a healthy diet. Studies have shown that following a healthy eating plan — such as the DASH diet described on these pages — lowers your systolic blood pressure by an average of 11 points, and your diastolic blood pressure by an average of 5 points. This diet can also help prevent osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
  • Smoking and Stress — Stop smoking, and manage stress. Tobacco use harms your arteries and increases your blood pressure. Lots of stress over many months or years can also hurt your body. Quitting smoking and learning to manage stress can lower your blood pressure and improve your overall health.

Prevention

Your lifestyle habits play a big role in your blood pressure — and you are in control of your habits. The habits listed below can help you lower your blood pressure and prevent hypertension:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet
  • Exercise every day
  • Reduce sodium/salt in diet