Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is blood pressure? What do the numbers mean?
Blood pressure refers to the force that your heart creates in order to push blood to the organs of your body. Along the way, your blood travels through arteries and arterioles to the capillaries that nourish your tissues. Veins then bring the blood back to the heart to pick up fresh oxygen.

Your heart is the driving force for all of this. It can increase your blood pressure by beating more forcefully or more frequently.

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers — the systolic pressure, as your heart beats, over the diastolic pressure, as your heart relaxes between beats. The measurement is written one above the other, with the systolic number on top and the diastolic number on the bottom.

What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure that is higher than normal over a period of time is called high blood pressure, or hypertension. The normal range of systolic blood pressure is 90 to 130, and for diastolic blood pressure the normal range is 60 to 90, so numbers that exceed these normal ranges would be categorized as high blood pressure.

What effect does high blood pressure have on my body?
High blood pressure causes your heart to work harder when distributing blood throughout your body. If left untreated, high blood pressure can cause damage to your heart, kidneys, brain, and other organs.

What causes high blood pressure?
Although in most cases the cause of hypertension is not known, we do know of several factors that may contribute to high blood pressure. Those factors include being overweight, eating too much salt, and over-indulging in alcohol on a regular basis. Also at risk are people who smoke or use tobacco, or who do not get enough exercise. These factors are considered controllable risk factors because a person can make lifestyle changes to help reduce their effects.

Uncontrollable risk factors include race, family history, age, and gender. For example, African Americans develop high blood pressure more often than others, and it tends to occur earlier and be more severe. Heredity may also play a part in your risk of hypertension. If your parents or other close blood relatives have high blood pressure, you’re more likely to develop it.

How do I know if I have high blood pressure?
Since there are usually no obvious physical symptoms, the only way to know if you have hypertension is to have your blood pressure checked at least once each year.

I was told I have “white coat hypertension.” What exactly is this?
Anxiety caused by a visit to the healthcare provider’s office may cause some people to have an elevated blood pressure reading. This is called “white coat hypertension.”

How is blood pressure tested?
Your blood pressure is measured by placing a pressure cuff around your upper arm. When the cuff is inflated, it presses on a large artery in your arm, briefly stopping the blood flow.

Next, the air is released slowly, and your provider listens with a stethoscope. When the pressure of the blood coming from the heart beating is equal to the pressure of the cuff, small amounts of blood flow through and make a “whooshing” sound. Your provider listens carefully for this sound while watching the blood pressure gauge, which gives a reading in millimeters of mercury. This first measurement is always the top number, which represents your systolic blood pressure.

When the last pulse is heard through the stethoscope, the blood is flowing smoothly through the artery and no more “whooshing” sounds are heard. Your provider records the number shown on the pressure gauge at that moment. This is the bottom number of a blood pressure measurement, or your diastolic blood pressure. It represents the amount of pressure in the circulatory system when your heart is resting between beats.

Can I take my blood pressure myself?
Yes. Self-monitoring allows you to check your blood pressure several times each day, and to keep track of it over a specific period of time. Your provider can probably suggest a reasonably priced, reliable home monitor.

What can I do to prevent high blood pressure?
You can take steps to prevent high blood pressure by adopting a healthy lifestyle. These steps include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Being physically active
  • Following a healthy eating plan, such as a Mediterranean diet
  • Choosing and preparing foods with less salt and sodium,
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages in moderation, and
  • Quitting tobacco use and smoking

I heard high blood pressure may lead to stroke. Is this true?
If high blood pressure goes untreated it certainly may lead to a stroke or other serious health challenges. High blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke. Stroke is also a leading cause of serious, long-term disability.

What happens if I don’t take care of my high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is known as “the silent killer.” Most people who have high blood pressure don’t even know they have it. Some people may experience headaches, dizziness, and blurred eyesight as the first symptoms. If left untreated it can cause a lot of damage to the heart, kidneys, brain, and blood vessels.

What should I do if I have side effects from my high blood pressure medication?
If you experience any side effects make a note of the side effects that occurred, when they occurred, if the medication was taken in combination with any other medication, and how severe the side effects were. Discuss all of this information with your provider to determine if a change in your blood pressure medication is necessary.

If I improve my lifestyle, do I still need to take a high blood pressure medication?
Making a lifestyle change is a step in the right direction, but lifestyle changes alone may not be enough to gain control of your high blood pressure.

I’m overweight and have high blood pressure. Why is this dangerous?
Being overweight increases your risk of developing high blood pressure. In fact, blood pressure rises as body weight increases. Losing even 10 pounds can lower blood pressure, and it has the greatest effect for those who are overweight and already have hypertension.

Being overweight is also a risk factor for heart disease. It increases your chance for developing high blood cholesterol and diabetes — two major risk factors for heart disease.

Does physical activity help my high blood pressure?
Being physically active is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent or control high blood pressure. It also helps reduce your risk of heart disease.

I’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure. Who should I tell?
Be sure to notify any medical practitioners such as your provider, physical therapist, dentist, or anyone else who treats you for health-related issues. It’s also a good idea to let your pharmacist know.

What are the long-term effects of high blood pressure on kidneys?
The kidneys act as filters to rid the body of wastes. Over time, high blood pressure can narrow and thicken the blood vessels of the kidneys. The kidneys then filter less fluid, and waste builds up in the blood, leading them to possibly fail altogether. When this happens, medical treatment, such as dialysis or kidney transplant may be needed.

I enjoy an occasional drink. Can that affect my high blood pressure?
Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. It also can harm your liver, brain, and heart. Alcoholic drinks also contain calories, which matter if you’re trying to lose weight. If you do drink alcoholic beverages, it’s a good idea to have only a moderate amount. Check with your provider about the amount that’s right for you.

Why is blood pressure measured in millimeters of mercury?
A millimeter of mercury is a commonly used measurement of pressure in medicine and physiology. Mercury is especially sensitive to acoustic pressures and has long been used to measure pressure in many scientific and technical fields. Mercury sphygmomanometers, considered to be the most accurate, use a column of mercury to measure blood pressure and never need to be calibrated.