Understanding Your Blood Pressure

Blood Pressure is one of the most common diagnostic measures used by Doctors.  It measures the amount of pressure exerted on your arteries by your heart’s pumping of blood.  High blood pressure, also called “Hypertension”, means your heart has to pump harder to move blood throughout your body.  This extra pumping stresses both your heart and your arteries and can lead to many chronic and acute problems, such as heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, vision loss, and chest pain.

Blood pressure is measured in 2 numbers:  systolic and diastolic.  For example, if your blood pressure is “120 over 80”, the first number, 120, is your systolic blood pressure and measures the pressure when your heart beats.  The second number, 80, is your diastolic blood pressure and measures the pressure when your heart is at rest in between beats.  Both measures are important however the systolic pressure is typically given more attention because it’s a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.  Doctors typically want your systolic blood pressure to be less than 120 and your diastolic blood pressure to be less than 80.  If your systolic blood pressure is greater than 130 OR your diastolic is greater than 90, then you’d be formally diagnosed as having “Hypertension”.

Measuring blood pressure can be tricky.  Readings from an automated blood pressure cuff may not be consistent with readings done manually.  Blood pressure can vary throughout the day and can be influenced by activities and stress.  Some patients experience anxiety having their blood pressure measured in a doctor’s office and such anxiety can temporarily raise your blood pressure.  Thus, your doctor may ask you to record your blood pressure several times per day for several weeks at home.  There are many automated blood pressure monitors available for home use and your doctor will help guide you to obtain good, consistent readings.

Hypertension is a long-term condition that typically manifests as we age.  Most patients don’t have a specific cause and the accumulation of risk factors can take years to develop hypertension.  Risk factors include poor diet, inactivity, tobacco use, alcohol abuse, obesity, race, and family history.  Most patients don’t have obvious signs or symptoms of hypertension so it’s important to have your blood pressure measured at least once per year.

If you’ve been diagnosed with early-stage hypertension, your doctor will discuss lifestyle changes to lower your blood pressure, such as reducing salt in your diet, more exercise, quitting smoking, or losing weight.  If lifestyle modifications don’t reduce your blood pressure enough, then your doctor may prescribe medications.  There are many medications from which to choose and it’s common for patients to be prescribed more than one.  The good news is hypertension is usually very treatable if you regularly see your doctor and follow your treatment plan.