Why Do I Have Hypertension?

If you have hypertension, or high blood pressure, you probably found out during a routine checkup.

Nearly one-third of people do not realize they have hypertension, known as a silent killer, because it rarely causes symptoms, even as it inflicts serious damage to the body. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to vision problems, as well as to heart attack, stroke, and other potentially fatal conditions, including kidney failure. It is important to check your blood pressure through regular check-ups, especially if you have family history of high blood pressure.

A blood pressure reading appears as two numbers. The first and higher of the two is a measure of systolic pressure, or the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats and fills them with blood. The second number measures diastolic pressure, or the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between beats.

People with blood pressure readings of 140/90 or higher, taken on at least two occasions, are said to have high blood pressure. It's natural for blood pressure to rise and fall with changes in activity or emotional state and to vary from person to person, but talk to your doctor if the it remains consistently high.

High blood pressure usually doesn’t cause symptoms, but there are a few warning signs -- severe headache; fatigue or confusion; vision problems; chest pain; difficulty breathing; irregular heartbeat; blood in the urine and pounding in your chest, neck, or ears -- that may indicate complications of hypertension, requiring urgent treatment as you could be having a hypertensive crisis that could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

In addition to measuring your blood pressure, your doctor will ask about your medical history, risk factors like whether you smoke, have high cholesterol or diabetes; and family history of high blood pressure or heart disease.

All patients with blood pressure readings greater than 120/80 should make lifestyle modifications, such as eating healthier, quitting smoking, and getting more exercise. Treatment with medication is used to lower blood pressure. Diet measures can be also be taken to help manage hypertension. Doctors recommend the DASH diet, which consists of low sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy, lean meats, nuts and legumes. Avoid sugar and simple carbs, processed foods, red meat and saturated and trans fat.

By Sarah Haroldson, MD, ThedaCare Physicians-New London.