What Is Hypertension?

Hypertension is when your blood pressure increases to unhealthy levels. It can develop over years and often without symptoms. It is important to understand the causes and risks associated with hypertension to better protect your health. Learn more here.

9 minute read

Last Updated July 6, 2020

What Is Hypertension? - Cardiovascular Diseases - 1MD

Hypertension or high blood pressure is when your blood pressure increases to unhealthy levels. The blood pressure measurement includes blood that is passing through your blood vessels as well as the amount of resistance the blood meets. 

Hypertension develops over the course of several years and is a common heart condition. Often there are no symptoms until something more serious occurs, so it is important to understand the causes and risks associated with hypertension to better protect your health.

Hypertension Causes

There are two types of hypertension, and each type has its cause. 

Primary hypertension develops with no identifiable causes but has several risk factors that play a role in its development. Some people are predisposed to hypertension, and unhealthy lifestyle choices can cause your blood pressure to rise gradually over time. 

Secondary hypertension occurs quickly and is considered more severe than primary hypertension. There are a number of health conditions that can cause secondary hypertension. 

♦ Kidney disease
♦ Use of illegal drugs
♦ Congenital heart defects
♦ Thyroid problems
♦ Obstructive sleep apnea
♦ Alcohol abuse
♦ Certain endocrine tumors

Hypertension Symptoms

Hypertension is mostly a silent condition, and many people do not experience symptoms. It can be decades before levels are severe enough to cause obvious symptoms. Severe hypertension signs and symptoms will be:

♦ Headaches
Chest pain
♦ Nosebleeds
Dizziness
Shortness of breath
♦ Visual changes
♦ Blood in the urine

Any of these need immediate medical attention, and waiting will only make the situation and your health worse. To avoid hypertension, you need to get regular blood pressure readings.

Hypertension Diagnosis

The diagnosis for hypertension involves a simple blood pressure reading, which is routine at doctor visits. If you do not receive it, then be sure to request one the next time you go. 

Elevated blood pressure readings can cause your doctor to take further readings over the course of the week to monitor it more closely. Stress and certain lifestyle factors can cause temporary blood pressure spikes, so sustained evidence is needed to accurately diagnose hypertension.

If your blood pressure readings remain high for a certain period of time, more tests such as electrocardiograms and ultrasounds may be required. These will look further at the heart and kidneys to evaluate possible reasons for the elevated blood pressure. 

Hypertension Treatment

The treatment prescribed will depend on which type of hypertension you have and what the causes are.

♦ Primary hypertension is treated with lifestyle changes to reduce blood pressure levels. If these are ineffective, your doctor can prescribe medications to help regulate blood pressure levels.

♦ Secondary hypertension is treated based on the underlying cause or condition. If the cause is a medication you are taking, a different dose or different medication will be prescribed. When it comes to treating hypertension, treatment plans often evolve because of what works, in the beginning, may not continue to work. You need to work with your doctor closely to refine your treatment as needed.

It is not uncommon to have a trial-and-error phase when it comes to hypertension medications. You need to find what works for you. The most commonly prescribed medications for regulating blood pressure include:

Beta blockers: These work to make your heartbeat slower.

Diuretics: These help your kidneys to remove more sodium from your body, as elevated sodium levels increase blood pressure.

ACE inhibitors: These prevent the body from producing too much angiotensin, which is a chemical that narrows blood vessels.

Calcium channel blockers: These block some of the calcium that enters the heart muscles, which causes less forceful heartbeats and lower blood pressure. 

Sometimes medications do not always work, and hypertension will persist. In these cases, you need to incorporate medications and dietary and lifestyle changes to achieve and maintain healthier blood pressure levels.

Hypertension Diet

The most important component of a diet designed to lower blood pressure is the reduction of sodium intake. Excess sodium is responsible for the majority of high blood pressure cases and can easily be avoided. Sodium increases your risk for heart disease too. The best way to avoid sodium is to eat out less and cook fresh foods more often. Packaged and convenience foods are high in sodium and need to be cut from your diet. 

You should also avoid sugar when possible and this includes sugary beverages. These products contain empty calories and no nutritional value and increase your risk for hypertension and other heart problems. Instead of sugary treats, try dark chocolate instead. Dark chocolate has not been sweetened with as much sugar as milk chocolate and contains powerful antioxidants that can support heart health. 

In addition to dark chocolate, fresh fruit is a better way to satisfy sweet cravings and avoid high blood pressure.

A plant-based diet is ideal for those with hypertension or those looking to prevent the condition. This diet is an easy way to get fiber and reduce sodium as well as unhealthy fats. 

Dairy foods and meat contain unhealthy fats that contribute to obesity and clogged arteries. Instead, switch to fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, leafy greens, and leaner proteins such as fish, tofu, and poultry.

Natural Treatments for Hypertension

Natural therapies you can try at home to lower blood pressure should be used in combination with dietary changes as well as any prescribed medications. The best natural treatments you can try are:

Getting more exercise: Being physically active helps you lose weight and reduces stress. This is the best way to lower your blood pressure naturally. Exercise also strengthens your cardiovascular system, which will prevent future heart problems. 

Lose weight: Obesity and excess weight adds strain to your body and increases the fat and cholesterol in your blood. By losing weight, you reduce the chances of clogged arteries and can lower blood pressure. 

Manage stress: Along with exercise, you can try meditation, deep breathing, and yoga to reduce stress. Stress causes inflammation, which directly damages heart vessels and increases blood pressure. 

Quit smoking: If you are a smoker, quitting is the best way to immediately lower your blood pressure.  

Hypertension Statistics

♦ 1 in every 3 adults has high blood pressure.
♦ Only about half of the people with hypertension have it under control.
♦ Hypertension contributes to the death of more than 410,000 Americans each year.
♦ High blood pressure costs the nation $48.6 billion each year.

Hypertension and Children

High blood pressure that occurs in children under the age of six is typically caused by another medical condition. Older children and adolescents develop high blood pressure as a result of the same causes as adults. 

Children can get both primary and secondary hypertension, and the treatment plans will be the same as for adults. If there is an underlying condition causing hypertension, it will be treated first. 

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Hypertension makes your heart work harder than it needs to, which increases your risk for heart disease, heart failure, and heart attack or stroke. You can also cause brain damage, as your brain relies on oxygen that your heart is pumping round. High blood pressure can cause temporary blockages to the brain, causing brain cells to die. 

Hypertension is dangerous but can be treated and managed. The best outlook will come with a healthy diet, exercise, monitoring your blood pressure regularly, and taking medications if needed. 

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