Receiving a diagnosis of high blood pressure, also called hypertension, might feel a little scary. You may have some questions and confusion. What does this mean for you? Why is this happening? Be assured that high blood pressure is very common and very treatable. A high blood pressure diagnosis doesn’t have to keep you from enjoying a long and fulfilling life. Let’s answer some common questions you and many others may ask after getting a diagnosis.
What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is also called hypertension. It occurs when the force of your blood moving through your blood vessels is too high. This means your heart has to work harder to do its job. When you take your blood pressure, there are two numbers in your blood pressure reading. The top number is called systolic pressure and refers to the pressure in your vessels when your heart contracts. The bottom number is diastolic pressure, which refers to the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart relaxes. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). When your blood pressure reading is over 130/80 mm Hg on a regular basis, you may be diagnosed with high blood pressure. Here are some useful resources that explain more about what high blood pressure is and how to understand your blood pressure readings:
- A Whole-Person Guide to Hypertension
- Understanding Your Blood Pressure Readings
- What Is High Blood Pressure
Why don’t I have symptoms?
Even though high blood pressure can have impacts all over the body, most people never experience symptoms. Others experience issues that don’t seem like they’re related but may be caused by their high blood pressure. Sometimes people get more severe headaches with high blood pressure, for example. Because symptoms aren’t always obvious, it’s important to check your blood pressure regularly. Those who do have symptoms might experience:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Headaches and migraines
- Abnormal heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Visual disturbances
Should I be worried?
High blood pressure is extremely common and very treatable. While unmanaged high blood pressure can be dangerous, you can keep it under control when you stick to your care plan. You can minimize the negative impacts of high blood pressure by working with your provider to come up with a treatment plan.
High blood pressure can have stages. Most people begin with normal or elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure has three stages: stage 1, stage 2, and hypertensive crisis. Read Understanding Your Blood Pressure Numbers to learn more about these stages. Remember to make a habit of checking your blood pressure regularly to get a good idea of your unique blood pressure patterns.
A hypertensive crisis is when your blood pressure is over 180/120 mm Hg and you are experiencing chest pain, back pain, numbness, shortness of breath, weakness, or difficulty speaking and seeing. If you experience this, call 911.
How does this affect the rest of my body?
Untreated high blood pressure can damage your arteries over time making them less elastic. This impacts how efficiently your blood moves through your body. When different organs throughout the body receive less blood flow, they can suffer damage. This is especially true for your heart, brain and kidneys.
Why do I have high blood pressure?
Everyone’s experience with high blood pressure is a little different. It’s important to speak with your care provider to determine your personal causes. You and your provider will go over your personal history and lifestyle to determine your specific causes. Common causes of high blood pressure are:
- Family history and genetics
- Being overweight
- Lack of exercise
- Smoking cigarettes
- High alcohol and caffeine consumption
- Being over the age of 65
- A diet high in salt and low in fruits and vegetables
Some causes of high blood pressure are within your control to change while others may not be. It’s important to be open with your care provider so you can determine a treatment plan that best suits your situation.
What treatment options do I have?
Your treatment will depend on your medical history and causes of high blood pressure. Some people may need to change some of their habits, like quitting smoking or exercising more. Others may need medication to help manage their blood pressure. Many people benefit from a combination of lifestyle changes and medication.
Lifestyle adjustments can include:
- Exercising more
- Eating less salt
- Managing stress and mental health
- Drinking less alcohol
- Quitting smoking
- Losing weight
- Eating more fruits and vegetables
- Having a regular sleep schedule
Your Guide to Heart Health provides more details about starting healthy habits to get your blood pressure under control. Here are some articles that may help you adjust your diet and exercise routine:
- Eat Potassium-Rich Foods to Lower Your Blood Pressure
- Low-Salt Picks: Fast-Food Edition
- How Exercise Helps You Manage Blood Pressure
There are many different types of medications for high blood pressure. Here are a few common ones you may be prescribed:
Diuretics – These medications help you flush more water and salt from your body so that your blood can pump more freely.
ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors – These medications relax blood vessels, which lowers your blood pressure.
Beta-blockers – These medications block the absorption of certain hormones, lowering your heart rate and relaxing your blood vessels. This widens arteries and veins so there is more room for your blood to flow freely.
Calcium channel blockers – These medications block the absorption of calcium into muscles and blood vessels. This relaxes the heart and blood vessel walls, letting blood flow more freely.
Some of these medications may have side effects. Your side effects will depend on your body and the medication you take. Some people never experience any side effects. Ask your care provider about how to manage side effects if they occur. Don’t stop taking your medication unless your provider instructs you to. Learn more about managing your blood pressure medication with these resources:
- 6 Ways to Manage High Blood Pressure Medication
- Everything You Need to Know About Blood Pressure Medicine
- Did You Take Your Blood Pressure Meds Today?
How long will I be on medication?
Many people stay on blood pressure medications for life. Others eventually graduate from blood pressure medications. Always take your medication as directed and continue to make healthy lifestyle adjustments. It may be impossible to know if you will need medications for life when you are diagnosed. But staying on top of your blood pressure routine can help you keep it under control. Your care provider may also need to adjust your medication routine to find what works best for you.