High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a serious condition that affects about one in three American adults, and two-thirds of people over age 65. Blood pressure is the force of blood as it pumps through your arteries. The more blood your heart pumps and the narrower your arteries are, the higher the blood pressure.
Normal blood pressure is an average systolic blood pressure of 120 mm Hg and an average diastolic pressure of 80 mm Hg -- often said as “120 over 80.” The top number measures the pressure in arteries when your heart beats. The bottom number measures the pressure between beats. Someone has high blood pressure when the average top number is above 140 mm Hg, the bottom number is above 90 mm Hg, or both.
High blood pressure raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death among Americans. It is called the "silent killer" because you usually don't have any symptoms when your blood pressure is too high. Hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity are the biggest reasons people get atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Most people can control their high blood pressure and reduce their risk of heart disease. Talk to your doctor about how to lower your high blood pressure. In some cases, making changes in your diet and exercising can get blood pressure under control. In other cases, you may need medications.
Signs and Symptoms
Most people don't know they have high blood pressure because they have no symptoms. Rarely, some people may have a mild headache when their blood pressure is high. Advanced cases of hypertension may cause these symptoms:
There are two major types of high blood pressure: essential, or primary, and secondary. Primary hypertension is the most common. It makes up more than 95% of all cases. Scientists don't know what causes it. A number of things may be involved, including:
Secondary hypertension has an underlying cause, which may include:
The following factors increase your risk for high blood pressure:
Each time your heart beats, or contracts, it pumps blood into your arteries. The pressure of the blood against the artery walls is called systolic blood pressure, when blood pressure is at its maximum. When your heart is at rest, between beats, the blood pressure falls, which is known as the diastolic pressure. A person with high blood pressure has an average systolic blood pressure above 140 mm Hg and/or a diastolic blood pressure above 90 mm Hg -- usually written as 140/90.
To diagnose hypertension, your doctor will check your blood pressure using an inflatable cuff and a stethoscope. If it's high, your doctor will check your pulse rate, examine your neck for swollen veins or an enlarged thyroid gland, listen to your heart for murmurs, and look at your eyes for damaged blood vessels in the retina. If your doctor thinks you have high blood pressure, you may be asked to measure your blood pressure at home or to come back for another appointment. Additional laboratory and blood tests can find out if it is secondary or primary hypertension.
There are several ways you can prevent high blood pressure.
Stay at a proper weight
A number of large-scale studies have found that being overweight is one of the strongest predictors that you will develop high blood pressure. That is true for teens and young adults as well as adults. Staying at a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to prevent hypertension. If you are overweight, ask your doctor or nutritionist how to safely losing pounds by eating a balanced diet. Even losing just as few pounds may help.
Cut back on salt
Cutting back on salt can help lower blood pressure for some people. Healthy people should get no more than 2,400 mg per day, and less is better. Even if you don't add salt to your food, you may be getting much more than that from canned, processed, and restaurant foods.
Get more exercise
Several studies found that people who don't get much physical activity may be at higher risk for developing hypertension. According to some studies, men who lead physically active lives can lower their risk of developing hypertension by 35 - 70 %. Regular exercise also helps keep your weight in check. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise -- such as a brisk walk -- every day. Ask your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.
Studies suggest that people who have three or more alcoholic drinks per day have a greater chance of developing hypertension. If you drink alcohol, have no more than one drink per day if you are a woman and two if you are a man.
Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
Most Americans eat too much saturated fat and not enough fruits and vegetables. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which recommends fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy, is often suggested for those who have high blood pressure. It also can help people who are at risk of developing the condition.
If you have high blood pressure, you and your doctor will work to reduce the risk of serious complications, including heart disease and stroke, by getting it under control. Ideally, you want your blood pressure to be 120/80 mm Hg. But even lowering it some can help.
In the early stages of hypertension when blood pressure isn't very high, your doctor may tell you to make lifestyle changes for 6 - 12 months. After this time, if blood pressure is still high, you will probably need medication. You'll still need to make changes to your diet and exercise habits, even if your doctor prescribes medication.
Several medications are available to treat high blood pressure. Ten percent of people with hypertension may need as many as three drugs to control their condition.
Some of the most commonly prescribed medications include:
Diuretics help the kidneys get rid of sodium and water from the body. This lowers the amount of blood in the body and brings down blood pressure.
There are three types of diuretics: thiazide, loop, and potassium-sparing.
Other medications used to treat hypertension include:
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Whether or not your doctor prescribes medication to lower your blood pressure, you need to make changes in your diet and lifestyle. Your treatment plan may also include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. Ask your doctor how to add these therapies into your overall treatment plan.
Do not stop taking your medication without your doctor's supervision. Quickly stopping some types of blood pressure medications can cause blood pressure to rise extremely high, which could cause stroke, heart attack, or other medical complications. Always tell your health care provider about the herbs and supplements you are using or considering using.
The following lifestyle changes will help treat high blood pressure:
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Eating a healthy diet that's low in saturated fat and salt can help lower blood pressure. Following these nutritional tips may help:
Some vitamins and supplements may help lower blood pressure, although scientific evidence is mixed. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any vitamins or supplements, especially if you take medication for high blood pressure.
Herbs may strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your health care provider before starting any treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, you should make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.
Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs to treat hypertension, especially if you already take medication to control blood pressure.
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. A professional homeopath, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for hypertension based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person’s constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular person.
Several studies of small numbers of people with high blood pressure showed that using acupuncture lowered blood pressure. However, more and larger studies are needed to see if it really works.
Massage and Physical Therapy
Massage may help people with high blood pressure cope with stress. One study found that people with hypertension who got massage had lower blood pressure and steroid hormones, an indicator of stress. People with hypertension who tend to have high levels of stress may be helped by massage therapy.
The association between stress and hypertension is complicated and somewhat controversial. The best evidence of a relaxation technique that reduces blood pressure is for transcendental meditation (TM). Several studies also say that yoga may help lower blood pressure.
Your doctor will check your blood pressure often while you are pregnant, because some women get hypertension then for the first time. If this happens, you may need medication. Preeclampsia, which involves high blood pressure during pregnancy, can be life threatening. In preeclampsia, high blood pressure happens along with other symptoms, such as swelling of the ankles and legs, blurred vision, liver test abnormalities, and protein in the urine.
Warnings and Precautions
Prognosis and Complications
If not treated, hypertension can cause serious complications, including:
Fortunately, there are several treatment options for hypertension. Comprehensive treatment, including lifestyle changes and blood pressure medications, usually controls high blood pressure and results in a generally good prognosis.
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Review Date: 12/28/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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