About Blood Pressure

What is blood pressure and why does it matter?

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels.

This force is normally present with every heartbeat as the blood travels through your body. This force (pressure) is needed to carry blood to all the organs in your body, such as your kidneys, brain, stomach, arms, and legs.

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, means that the pressure in your blood vessels stays higher than normal.

If your blood pressure stays high, it can become dangerous to your body.

Even as a young adult, high blood pressure can raise your risk of having serious health problems including a heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, or heart failure.

Taking steps to lower your blood pressure will help you live a healthier and longer life.  

Hypertension Damage

What do the blood pressure numbers mean?

Every blood pressure has two numbers and can be written in two ways:

118/72 mmHg  118/72 mmHg

The top number (118) is the systolic blood pressure. The systolic blood pressure is the force in the blood vessels when the heart squeezes during a heartbeat.

The bottom number (72) is the diastolic blood pressure. The diastolic blood pressure is the force in the blood vessels when the heart is resting between heart beats. The symbol “mmHg” is read as “millimeters of mercury.”

 

There are 4 blood pressure categories for all adults (anyone at least 18 years of age).

Even if you do not have high blood pressure, you should have your blood pressure checked at least once a year. Talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to lower your blood pressure.

Normal blood pressureNormal Blood Pressure

Your top number (systolic) is less than 120 mmHg and your bottom number (diastolic) is less than 80 mmHg.

Pre-HypertensionPre-Hypertension

Your top number (systolic) is between 120 and 139 mmHg or your bottom number (diastolic) is between 80 and 89 mmHg.

Your blood pressure is in the “borderline” range. You are at high risk of developing high blood pressure (also called “hypertension”).

Stage 1 HypertensionStage 1 High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

Your top number (systolic) is between 140 and 159 mmHg or your bottom number (diastolic) is between 90 and 99 mmHg.

You have high blood pressure (hypertension). Sometimes this level of high blood is called “mildly high.” You are still at risk of having damage to your body from the high pressure.

Stage 2 HypertensionStage 2 High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

Your top number (systolic) is at least 160 mmHg or higher or your bottom number (diastolic) is at least 100 mmHg or higher.

You have high blood pressure (hypertension). You are at risk of having damage to your body from the high pressure against your blood vessels – including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or kidney disease.

Am I at risk for high blood pressure?

1 in 15 have high bpHigh blood pressure (also called hypertension) is very common. About 1 in 3 of all adults have high blood pressure in the United States. Almost 1 in 15 young adults (18-39 year-olds) have high blood pressure.

Many people do not know they have high blood pressure. The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is to have it checked at least once a year.

If you are told that your blood pressure is high, it is important to be seen at a medical clinic to learn how to lower your blood pressure. 

Everyone is at risk for high blood pressure. Blood pressure increases as you get older. 

 

Am I at RiskYou may be at risk for developing high blood pressure at a younger age if:

  • Your family members have high blood pressure.

  • You smoke cigarettes. (See Quit Smoking)

  • You are overweight. Find out more about your body weight at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/.

  • You are African-American or of African descent. Some race/ethnicities have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure.

  • You have diabetes. High blood sugar damages the blood vessels and makes it harder for your body to keep the blood pressure in the normal range.

  • You do not exercise regularly. Regular exercise is important for everyone! Exercise can relax your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure.

  • You have a high sodium (high salt) diet. A diet high in sodium (salt) can raise your blood pressure. 

  • You consume too much alcohol. (See Limit Alcohol)

  • You have high stress. Always being under stress can cause your blood pressure to remain high. You and your blood vessels need time to relax. (See Manage Stress)

  • You have sleep apnea. Have you been told that you snore or stop breathing when you sleep? You may have sleep apnea which can cause high blood pressure. Consider talking to your doctor about a sleep study. 

  • You have kidney disease. Some kidney conditions can cause high blood pressure.

See here for a downloadable list of questions you can ask your doctor about high blood pressure. (This file will open in PDF format. You can download a free PDF reader here.)

How can I check my blood pressure?

Who can check my blood pressure?Blood Pressure Measuring

Many people have their blood pressure checked at a doctor’s office. A pharmacist at your local drug store or pharmacy can also check your blood pressure.

Blood pressure checks should not cause bruising or severe pain. A correct-sized cuff will be wrapped around your upper arm. Air will be pumped into the cuff, it will squeeze your arm tightly, and then the air will be slowly let out.

Sometimes your blood pressure will be checked with an automatic blood pressure machine. Other times, the doctor, nurse, or pharmacist will listen to your heartbeat and watch the monitor to measure your blood pressure manually. 

 

Home blood pressure monitoring

Your doctor or nurse may ask you to purchase a home blood pressure monitor.  This will allow you to check your blood pressure at home, at work, and/or during stressful times. Your healthcare team will let you know how often to check your blood pressure. Sometimes a person’s blood pressure may be high in the clinic, but normal outside of clinic. Checking your blood pressure outside the clinic will help your doctor and nurse learn about your blood pressure during your regular activities.

See our resources page to learn how to take your own blood pressure and to download a blood pressure log to record your blood pressures. (This file will open in PDF format. You can download a free PDF reader here.)

 

24-hour blood pressure monitoring

Your doctor may also ask you to wear a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours. This is a test that can give more accurate blood pressure readings.

Your clinic will give you a special blood pressure machine that measures your blood pressures every 20 to 30 minutes over 24 hours. Sometimes this is needed if your blood pressure is high in clinic but may be lower when you are not at the doctor’s office (called “white coat high blood pressure” or “white coat hypertension”).

There is an additional cost to borrow this special blood pressure monitor, and it is not always covered by insurance.

Will I feel something if my blood pressure is high?

Most people do not feel anything when their blood pressure is high. Over time, high blood pressure (hypertension) can damage your blood vessels, heart, and kidneys even without warning signs or symptoms. That is why high blood pressure is called the “Silent Killer.”Warning signs

Since most people will not have symptoms with high blood pressure, it is important for everyone to have their blood pressure checked regularly. For more information about how and where to get your blood pressure checked, see How can I check my blood pressure?.

Some people may have these symptoms when they have high blood pressure:

  • headache
  • chest discomfort
  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • breathing problems
  • eye discomfort

 
If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider. If you think you are having a medical emergency, call 911.  

Other symptoms may be warning signs of a stroke. You should call 911 immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

  • trouble speaking or understanding
  • loss of balance or control
  • face drooping, numbness or weakness, especially on one side of your body

 
See the American Stroke Association website for additional information about stroke warning signs and symptoms.   

How is high blood pressure treated?

Healthy Lifestyle

Running shoesA healthy lifestyle is very important to lower blood pressure. For some people, healthy choices such as a low salt diet, regular exercise, and/or losing weight can lower blood pressure as much as a medication!

See Healthy Choices You Can Make for more information on how a healthy lifestyle can lower your blood pressure.

Medication

Hand holding pillMany adults, including young adults, need blood pressure medication, in addition to a healthy lifestyle to lower blood pressure.

See here for a downloadable list of questions you can ask your doctor about blood pressure medication. (This file will open in PDF format. You can download a free PDF reader here.)

Continuing a healthy lifestyle, even with medication, will lower the amount of medication you may need now and in the future. Weight gain can increase the amount of medicine you need over time.

Work with your healthcare provider to develop a plan to lower your blood pressure that works for you!

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