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High Blood Pressure

High Blood Pressure Overview

The heart pumps blood into the arteries with enough force to push blood to the far reaches of each organ from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet. Blood pressure can be defined as the pressure of blood on the walls of the arteries as it circulates through the body. Blood pressure is highest as its leaves the heart through the aorta and gradually decreases as it enters smaller and smaller blood vessels (arteries, arterioles, and capillaries). Blood returns in the veins leading to the heart, aided by gravity and muscle contraction.

Picture of the blood pressure and circulatory system

Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. It is known as the "silent killer" since it has no initial symptoms but can lead to long-term disease and complications..

  • Many people have high blood pressure and don't know it.

  • Important complications of uncontrolled or poorly treated high blood pressure include heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, peripheral artery disease, and aortic aneurysms (weakening of the wall of the aorta, leading to widening or ballooning of the aorta).

  • Public awareness of these dangers has increased. High blood pressure has become the second most common reason for medical office visits in the United States.

How is blood pressure measured?

Blood pressure is measured with a blood pressure cuff and recorded as two numbers, for example, 120/80 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury). Blood pressure measurements are usually taken at the upper arm over the brachial artery.

  • The top, larger number is called the systolic pressure. This measures the pressure generated when the heart contracts (pumps). It reflects the pressure of the blood against arterial walls.

  • The bottom, smaller number is called the diastolic pressure. This reflects the pressure in the arteries while the heart is filling and resting between heartbeats.

Picture of diastolic and systolic blood pressure

The American Heart Association has recommended guidelines to define normal and high blood pressure.

  • Normal blood pressure less than 120/80

  • Pre-hypertension 120-139/ 80-89

  • High blood pressure (stage 1) 140-159/90-99

  • High blood pressure (stage 2) higher than 160/100

As many as 60 million Americans have high blood pressure.

  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure may be responsible for many cases of death and disability resulting from heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.

  • According to research studies, the risk of dying of a heart attack is directly linked to high blood pressure, particularly systolic hypertension. The higher your blood pressure, the higher the risk. Maintaining lifelong control of hypertension decreases the future risk of complications such as heart attack and stroke.

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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Hypertensive Heart Disease »

Uncontrolled and prolonged elevation of blood pressure (BP) can lead to a variety of changes in the myocardial structure, coronary vasculature, and conduction system of the heart.

Read More on Medscape Reference »


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