Explaining High Blood Pressure: Symptoms and Treatments

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP
April 21, 2021
4 mins

High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is one of the biggest health issues facing people in the United States, affecting more than 108 million Americans. Of that number, it’s estimated that only 24 percent have their high blood pressure under control.

Most people have heard about high blood pressure from their healthcare providers and have been counseled that healthy habits can combat the condition. But high blood pressure has many different causes and risk factors, so it’s not always easy to know what we should be doing differently to improve our health. A first step is understanding what high blood pressure is.

What Is High Blood Pressure?

Hypertension occurs when our blood exerts too much force, or pressure, on the walls of our blood vessels. High pressure is usually a sign that something is constricting the walls of our blood vessels or arteries, causing the heart to have to work harder to force blood through a narrower space.

There are many causes for this. Primary hypertension, or hypertension that develops slowly over time, can be caused by a variety of different factors including genetics, aging, and unhealthy lifestyle choices. Secondary hypertension develops rapidly, and as a result can be much more dangerous. It’s typically caused by conditions and shorter-term factors like alcohol abuse, kidney disease, obstructive sleep apnea, and thyroid issues. 

High Blood Pressure Symptoms

To minimize risks, your doctor should be checking your blood pressure every two years at minimum — and every year if you’re over the age of 40 or are otherwise at increased risk. In the United States, experts have determined a variety of factors that can increase your risk of developing hypertension. These include:

     • Having a family history of high blood pressure

     • African heritage

     • Being overweight or obese

     • A sedentary lifestyle

     • Smoking or chewing tobacco on a regular basis

     • A high-sodium diet

     • High stress levels

If you fall into one or more of the above categories, you should be getting your blood pressure checked at least every year. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, so it can be difficult to diagnose without a blood pressure reading. 

However, some signs of high blood pressure should be noted, such as:

     • Headaches

     • Shortness of breath

     • Nosebleeds

These symptoms are rare and may indicate that your hypertension has reached life-threatening levels.

Diagnosing High Blood Pressure

It’s so important to deal with hypertension early, to ensure that it doesn’t irreparably damage the blood vessels of essential organs. The wear and tear that high blood pressure causes can put a person at much higher risk for a variety of health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms, heart failure, and dementia.

Thankfully, a simple measurement taken with a blood pressure cuff can help your doctor determine whether you’re at risk. If you show a higher measurement, they may ask you to buy a monitor to keep at home, so you can check your blood pressure regularly.

Generally, any measurement over 120/80 mm Hg is considered elevated. However, blood pressure goals can differ depending on a patient’s risk profile. 

Treating High Blood Pressure

If your doctor determines that you have hypertension, they will likely recommend a variety of lifestyle changes that will help lower your blood pressure. These include:

     • Adopting a heart-healthy diet that’s low in salt and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins

     • Increasing your physical activity, and shedding excess weight if necessary

     • Mitigating or managing stress

     • Limiting your alcohol intake

     • Quitting smoking, and avoiding secondhand smoke

Depending on the severity of your high blood pressure, your doctor may also prescribe medications including diuretics, beta-blockers, ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors) inhibitors, vasodilators, or alpha-blockers.

Living with High Blood Pressure

Being diagnosed with hypertension might be worrying, but by getting more exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet, lowering stress, quitting smoking, and lowering or eliminating alcohol intake, you can lower your risk factors for fatal events like heart attacks and strokes.

If it’s been a while since your last blood pressure reading, don’t worry. You can schedule a blood pressure screening with your primary care physician through the Carbon Health app today.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP

As Carbon Health’s Chief Innovation Officer, Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP, guides clinical innovation through product development, service expansion, and partnerships with transformative companies working to improve the healthcare ecosystem. He is an emergency medicine physician, a former high school teacher, and a reformed academic researcher. Caesar co-founded Direct Urgent Care to deliver technology-enabled urgent care throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has practiced at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the University Hospital of Columbia, and Weill Cornell Medicine. In his spare time, Caesar advises healthcare startups, cheers on the Warriors, tries various HIIT workouts, and daydreams about what the future of health will look like.