Essentials of Hypertension: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors and Complications of High Blood Pressure
Meet Gigi, a 46-year-old super mom. A child of an absent father and a drunken mom, she had vowed to give her twins the best of luxuries. She juggled her daily 9-5 with her ever-bustling bar. She had a lot to be proud of – a successful career lady, a property owner, beautiful teen twin girls, and men cowering at her door for her attention. But who has time for men? She barely had time to eat. She subsisted on coffee, fast food, and on occasion, those delicious hot wings and wine her bar was known for.
About a week ago, Gigi began to experience a terrible headache. ‘Definitely a migraine,’ she thought to herself. After all, she had been under a lot of stress lately. The twins’ birthday was coming up and planning a surprise sweet sixteen for two is no mean feat. She borrowed some migraine medications from her sister to see if it would help.
A day before the birthday party, as Gigi sat in her office trying to balance her books, she felt a sharp pain in her chest. Beads of sweat adorned her forehead and she began to gasp for breath. She was rushed to the emergency room where she was told she was suffering a heart attack. But for the timely intervention of the doctors, the beautiful twins would have been orphaned on their birthday. When she was discharged from the hospital, part of the diagnosis was high blood pressure. Today at thetropicalmd, we will talk about the silent killer that is hypertension.
What is Hypertension?
Hypertension is another term for high blood pressure. The heart pumps blood to other organs of the body through blood vessels. To successfully reach all the organs of the body, some amount of force is required by the heart in pumping blood. Blood pressure is the force exerted by the blood being pumped against the blood vessels. It is determined by how much work is being done by the heart and the resistance of the blood vessels. When this pressure is consistently high, it is known as high blood pressure or hypertension.
Hypertension is particularly dangerous because in hypertension, the heart works harder than usual to pump blood to the body and this can lead to several dangerous complications.
Understanding blood pressure readings.
Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) with a device called a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure monitor). The blood pressure monitor gives two readings – the top, systolic, which is the pressure when the heart beats, and the bottom, diastolic, which is the pressure when the heart rests between the beats. Blood pressure is therefore recorded as Systolic/Diastolic mmHg
What is normal blood pressure?
Normal blood pressure in adults is anything below 120/80 mmHg. Medically, high blood pressure is any pressure of 130 systolic or higher, or 80 diastolic or higher, that stays high over time.
Blood Pressure Chart
What causes high blood pressure?
More often than not, hypertension has no identifiable cause. This is known as primary or essential hypertension. This type of hypertension tends to develop gradually over time.
There is a small minority, however (about 5-10%), caused by diseases of for example the kidney or some of the glands and some drugs (some pain relievers, birth control pills, and weight loss pills).
Primary hypertension is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle as seen in the case of Gigi. These unhealthy habits are known as risk factors for high blood pressure.
What are the risk factors for high blood pressure?
Risk factors for hypertension are factors that increase your chances of developing high blood pressure. They fall under two categories – modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors.
Modifiable risk factors
These are factors that you can control. They include:
- Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke (this includes hookah/shisha)
- Being overweight or obese
- Having high cholesterol levels
- Unhealthy diet (high in sodium, low in potassium)
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Physical inactivity/sedentary lifestyle.
Non-modifiable risk factors
These are factors that you have no control over. They are:
- Increasing age
- Race (tends to be more common among people of African descent)
- Family history of hypertension (tends to run in families)
- Gender (Men are more prone to hypertension at a younger age).
How can I tell I have high blood pressure/what are the symptoms of hypertension?
As mentioned earlier, hypertension is a silent killer. Hypertension usually has no symptoms. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to get regular blood pressure checks by a healthcare professional. At very high pressures (hypertensive crisis), you may experience symptoms such as Headaches and nosebleeds. Other symptoms that may be indirectly related to but not always caused by hypertension include blurred vision, facial flushing, and dizziness.
What are the complications of hypertension?
In most cases, the harm done by high blood pressure takes place over time. Left undetected (or uncontrolled), hypertension can lead to:
When blood pressure remains high and uncontrolled for a long time, it can weaken/damage your brain’s blood vessels, causing them to leak or rupture. This results in hemorrhagic stroke. Hypertension can also result in the formation of blood clots in the arteries supplying the vein, blocking flow and potentially causing a stroke.
The increased workload on the heart from high blood pressure can cause it to enlarge and fail to adequately supply blood to the body.
High blood pressure leads to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) which can result in reduced flow of blood to the heart muscle itself.
High blood pressure can damage the arteries around the kidneys and interfere with their ability to filter blood effectively.
Uncontrolled hypertension damages the blood vessels in the retina of the eye.
High blood pressure can cause damage to the lining of the arteries of the penis. This can restrict blood flow to your penis and hence preventing strong, sustained erections.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
Atherosclerosis caused by high blood pressure can cause a narrowing of arteries in the legs, arms, stomach, and head, causing pain or fatigue.
Albeit silent, hypertension is a highly skilled killer. It is a risk factor for the two leading causes of death (heart disease and stroke) worldwide. The good news, however, is that it can be prevented and even controlled. In our next post, we will delve into the prevention and management techniques of high blood pressure. While you wait, please take the time to check your blood and feel free to ask questions in the comments section.