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Frequently Asked Questions

What can you tell me about high blood pressure (hypertension)?

Short Answer

When the pressure of circulating blood against the blood vessel walls becomes too high, it's called hypertension.

Long Answer

When the heart pumps blood through your body, a certain amount of force is naturally exerted on the walls of your blood vessels. Consider water flowing through a garden hose. The hose is less flexible when there's water flowing through it and if there's a small hole in the hose, the water sprays out in a strong stream. The water pressure varies depending on the amount of water flowing through and the diameter of hose. Likewise, blood pressure is affected by the amount of blood being pumped by each heart beat and the width of your blood vessels.

Blood pressure is measured using a blood pressure cuff that is placed around your upper arm. The cuff is inflated with air until the blood flow in the arm's brachial artery is cut off which is determined by listening with a stethoscope. The air is then slowly released and pressure readings are taken.

There are two components of a blood pressure reading:

  • Systolic: read when the heart contracts, pushing out blood
  • Diastolic: read when the heart is resting between beats and refilling with blood

The two numbers are expressed as a fraction with the systolic reading on top; e.g., 120/80 (120 over 80).

Blood Pressure Category Systolic   Diastolic
Normal less than 120 and less than 80
Prehypertension 120-139 or 80-89
Hypertension (stage 1) 140-159 or 90-99
Hypertension (stage 2) more than 160 or more than 100

Blood pressure that is consistently too high is called hypertension. People can have hypertension for years with no symptoms. It can damage the walls of your arteries or your body's organs. Some hypertension health risks are:

  • Hardening of the arteries
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Kidney damage
  • Vision loss
  • Aneurysm where a blood vessel weakens and bulges

There are many medications used to lower high blood pressure and they fall into different classes. The more common classes are listed below followed by examples of medications.

  • Angiotensin-converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors reduce the production of a chemical called angiotensin that causes the arteries to restrict.
  • Angiotensin Receptor Blockers (ARBs) block the action of angiotensin that causes the arteries to restrict.
  • Beta-blockers reduce certain nerve signals to the heart so it beats more slowly and less forcefully.
  • Calcium Channel Blockers prevent calcium from entering the cells walls of the heart and arteries. This has the effect of reducing the strength of the heart's contractions and relaxing the arteries.
    • Amlodipine (Amlopres, Norvasc)
    • Diltiazem HCL (Dilgard, Cardizem, Dilzem, Cardizem CD, Dilgard XL, Dilzem CD, Cartia, Cartia CD, Dilacor, Dilacor CD, Diltia, Diltia CD, Tiazac, Tiazac CD, Angizem)
    • Felodipine (Plendil)
    • Nifedipine (Nicardia, Adalat, Adalat ER, Adalat XL, Afeditab ER)
    • Verapamil (Calaptin, Calan, Calan SR, Covera HS, Isoptin, Isoptin SR, Verelan, Verelan
  • Diuretics (water pills) reduce the amount of salt and water in the body which lowers blood pressure. Diuretics may be used in combination with other blood pressure medications.

Most of the time there is no known cause of high blood pressure but there are risk factors that can contribute to developing high blood pressure.

  • Age; the risk increases as we grow older
  • Family history
  • Being overweight
  • Poor diet, especially one high in salt
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Lack of exercise
  • Stress
  • Nicotine use or exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Sleep apnea

Once hypertension has been diagnosed, making positive lifestyle changes will help you manage the disease in combination with medication prescribed by your health care provider. In addition, regularly monitoring your blood pressure through medical checkups or using a home blood pressure monitor will identify changes in your condition that need to be addressed.

Download and print this handy Blood Pressure Chart.

Additional Information

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) (MayoClinic.com)
The Mayo Clinic explains high blood pressure, risks, complications, tests and diagnosis, and treatment.
High Blood Pressure or Hypertension (Heart.org)
This comprehensive site by the American Heart Association covers all aspects of high blood pressure.
Taking Your Blood Pressure Correctly (Dummies.com)
Learn how to take your own blood pressure with a home monitoring device.