Understanding and Managing High Blood Pressure

August 2017

When your heart pumps blood, the blood pushes against the walls of your blood vessels. This creates blood pressure. You need blood pressure to move blood throughout your body, so every part of your body can get the oxygen it needs.

Healthy arteries (the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body) are elastic. They can stretch to allow more blood to push through them. How much they stretch depends on how hard the blood pushes against the artery walls. For your arteries to stay healthy, it’s important that your blood pressure be within a healthy range.

Checking Your Blood Pressure

Using a blood-pressure monitor, your healthcare provider can measure your blood pressure to see if it’s in a healthy range. Your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers. The systolic blood pressure (the “upper” number) tells how much pressure blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is pumping blood. The diastolic blood pressure (the “lower” number) tells how much pressure the blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.

Blood pressure is measured in units of millimeters of mercury, or mm Hg. For example, a blood pressure reading might be 120/80 mm Hg. A healthy blood pressure is under 120/80 mm Hg. A blood pressure reading of 120-139 systolic or 80-89 diastolic is defined as “prehypertension.” This means that the blood pressure is not high enough to be called high blood pressure (hypertension), but that it is higher than normal. If systolic blood pressure is 140 or greater, or diastolic blood pressure is 90 or greater, it’s high blood pressure.

Risk Factors

High blood pressure cannot be cured. It can, however, be managed effectively through lifestyle changes and, when needed, medication. In most cases, the cause of high blood pressure is not known.

Risk factors fall into two categories: those you can control and those that are out of your control, such as hereditary factors. Those you can control include a lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, obesity, drinking too much alcohol, excess stress, sleep apnea and smoking.

Talk with Your Doctor

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it’s important to follow the treatment plan your doctor gives you. This will almost certainly include changes to your diet and physical activity level, and may include medication.

Source: American Heart Association; American Stroke Association

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