High blood pressure strikes without warning
by: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
It’s been called the “silent killer” because it often causes no symptoms – even as it inflicts serious damage to the body. In fact, nearly one-third of people who have it are unaware of their condition. If left untreated, it can lead to heart problems and heart attack, stroke, vision problems and other potentially fatal conditions, including kidney failure.
What is this potentially serious condition? High blood pressure.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the most common cardiovascular disease – more than 30 percent (or 67 million) American adults have high blood pressure. It is the leading cause of stroke and a major cause of heart attack. It is classified as a blood pressure greater than 140/90 in people under 60 and greater than 150/90 in people over 60.
The only way to know if your blood pressure is high is to have it checked with a blood pressure cuff. The procedure is painless and takes just a few minutes. It can be completed during a visit to your health care professional, during a visit to a pharmacy or other location where a blood pressure cuff is available or you can purchase a blood pressure cuff and monitor your blood pressure at home.
The exact cause of high blood pressure usually isn’t known, but there are certain factors and conditions that increase your risk. They include:
• Being overweight
• Sedentary lifestyle
• A diet containing excess salt (more than 2,300 milligrams per day)
• Alcohol consumption in excess of 1 to 2 drinks per day
• Age (risk increases with age)
• Family history of hypertension
• Chronic kidney disease
• Adrenal and thyroid disorders
Once diagnosed, your physician will work out a treatment plan to help manage your hypertension. The goal of treatment is to lower high blood pressure and protect important organs, like the brain, heart and kidneys while reducing your risk for stroke, heart attack and heart failure. Treatment involves lifestyle changes and possibly drug therapy.
Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthier diet, quitting smoking, establishing a regular exercise routine, reducing sodium intake, losing weight if you are overweight and limiting alcohol not only helps lower high blood pressure in people with hypertension, it can help prevent high blood pressure from developing in the first place.
If left untreated or unchecked, blood pressure may spike or become very high possibly resulting in a condition known as hypertensive crisis. Hypertensive crisis is a term encompassing two conditions – hypertensive urgency and hypertensive emergency.
Hypertensive urgency occurs when blood pressure spikes (180/110 or high) but there is no damage to organs. Blood pressure can usually be brought down safely with blood pressure medication.
Hypertensive emergency is a more serious condition; during it, organ damage can occur. While hypertension most often causes no symptoms, hypertensive emergency is accompanied by headache, blurred vision, confusion, seizures, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, vomiting, nose bleeds and/or swelling.
If you have hypertension and experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately. You may be experiencing a hypertensive crisis that could lead to organ damage, heart attack or stroke.
Treatment for hypertensive crisis involves bringing the blood pressure down as quickly as possible in order to prevent and avoid organ damage. Often blood pressure medications are administered intravenously.
High blood pressure affects millions of Americans, including children and teens. It most often has no symptoms; so many people don’t realize they have it. That’s why is important to visit your doctor and have your blood pressure checked regularly. Once diagnosed, lifestyle changes and a team-based care approach that includes the patient, primary care provider and other health care providers is a recommended strategy to reduce and control high blood pressure.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.