I've Been Told I Have High Blood Pressure - What Does That Mean?

What is blood pressure?

When your heart beats, it pumps blood through your arteries to bring oxygen and energy to body tissues. The force of the blood against the walls of your arteries is called blood pressure. Everyone needs some blood pressure to be healthy.

Blood pressure (BP) is measured in millimeters of mercury and is recorded as two numbers that are displayed like a fraction, for example 120/80. The top number measures the systolic pressure (when the heart beats) and the bottom number measures the diastolic pressure (when heart relaxes).

What is high blood pressure and what causes it?

About one in four Canadians has high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also called hypertension. Hypertension doesn't mean you are either “hyper” or tense. It means that the pressure, or tension, in your blood vessels is too high. Usually the cause of high blood pressure is unknown and is called primary (or essential) hypertension by health professionals. However, there are factors that can contribute to high blood pressure. Some of these factors include:

  • age (blood pressure usually increases with age)
  • diet
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • lack of exercise
  • obesity
  • stress
  • sleep apnea.

How do I know if I have high blood pressure?

High blood pressure can sometimes cause headaches, vision problems, dizziness, or shortness of breath, but most people with high blood pressure have no symptoms. This is why high blood pressure is referred to as “the silent killer” and is often discovered at a regular medical check-up when a doctor or nurse takes a blood pressure reading. According to the guidelines of the Hypertension: 2007 public recommendations (from the Canadian Hypertension Society) if your blood pressure is measured at 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) or more, and stays at that level, you have high blood pressure. If you have diabetes or kidney disease, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg.

Having one raised blood pressure reading doesn't mean that you have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is only diagnosed after several blood pressure readings have been taken at several different times by a qualified health professional. You need to have more than one reading because sometimes your blood pressure can increase for a little while, such as when you're nervous or in a hurry.

What next?

If you're diagnosed with high blood pressure, it's important to keep your blood pressure within normal limits. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can be very harmful to your health and can cause damage to your blood vessels that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. You should work with your health care professional to manage your high blood pressure with medications, lifestyle changes or both.

Additional Resources

Prepared by Alberta Health Services. This FAQ appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.

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