What is Hypertension? Image

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects as many as 73 million Americans, including children. Hypertension increases the risk of serious health conditions, including strokes, heart attacks, heart failure and kidney failure. As symptoms of hypertension are often undetectable, many people live with untreated high blood pressure.

What is Blood Pressure?

When the heart beats, blood moves through the body, placing pressure on the blood vessels. Blood pressure is highest when the heart beats and lowest when the heart rests.

Normal blood pressure for an adult is 120/80 (mmHg). The first number is your systolic blood pressure (when the heart beats) and the second is your diastolic blood pressure (when the heart is at rest).

Blood pressure is not a constant–it tends to be higher after exercise, and can also rise due to emotional stimulation or stress. In fact, when angry people claim something makes their blood pressure rise, they’re quite accurate. While some deviation in blood pressure is normal, at rest a healthy adult should still have a blood pressure reading of approximately 120/80.

Hypertension occurs when blood pressure rises to 140/90 or higher. In addition, doctors now consider blood pressure higher than 120/80 but lower than 140/90 as “prehypertension.” Prehypertension affects up to 50 million Americans, and like hypertension, can damage the heart, brain and kidneys.

Symptoms of Hypertension

High blood pressure is usually asymptomatic, meaning that symptoms of hypertension are not noticeable in most cases. A person can be unaware of hypertension for years, all the while high blood pressure is slowly but inevitably damaging their blood vessels, heart, brain and kidneys. Only when a stroke or other complications occur is the underlying high blood pressure detected.

While symptoms of hypertension are difficult to detect, a blood pressure exam done correctly by your doctor can help diagnose hypertension. Regular blood pressure tests allow early detection of hypertension, and early treatment helps prevent damage caused by high blood pressure.

Types of Hypertension

Most cases of hypertension display no clear cause–in this case, high blood pressure is referred to as “primary hypertension.” In other cases, doctors can identify underlying conditions as the cause of hypertension, in which case the condition is referred to as “secondary hypertension.”

Different body areas can have very different blood pressure rates. Pulmonary hypertension, for instance, refers to hypertension in blood vessels that supply the lungs with oxygen. Heart conditions, lung diseases, AIDS, and medications can all cause pulmonary hypertension.

Treating Hypertension

Untreated hypertension can be fatal. Fortunately, a number of successful high blood pressure treatments are available, ranging from lifestyle changes to prescription medication. With proper care, hypertension can be controlled.


Mayo Clinic Staff. (2008). High blood pressure (hypertension). Retrieved January 22, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-pressure/DS00100.

U.S. National Library of Medicine Staff. (2010). High blood pressure. Retrieved January 22, 2010, from the MedlinePlus Web Site:  ttp://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/highbloodpressure.html.