High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a medical condition in which the force of blood flowing through the blood vessels is consistently higher than normal. When not well managed, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, vision loss, sexual dysfunction and peripheral artery disease.

"High blood pressure is nicknamed 'the silent killer,"' says Dr. Zubair Ahmed, a cardiologist at Washington Regional Cardiovascular Clinic, part of the Washington Regional Walker Heart Institute. "That's because there usually aren't any symptoms associated with it. People do not know their blood pressure is running high and yet their organs are being seriously damaged from it. That's why blood pressure should be checked regularly."

In addition to having your blood pressure checked at doctor visits, it is a good idea to measure it regularly with a home blood pressure monitor or at one of the free blood pressure measurement machines available at many pharmacies.

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, a systolic number "over" a diastolic number.

Systolic blood pressure, which is given as the first number, indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls each time your heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure, the second number, indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while your heart is resting between beats.

Typically, a blood pressure reading less than 120/80 is considered normal. "When the top number, or systolic number consistently hits between 130 and 140, you may be considered pre-hypertensive," Ahmed says. "Any systolic numbers above 140 are considered hypertensive."

Individuals should talk with their primary care provider about ways to lower their blood pressure if needed. "A lot of times, the first step is to modify your lifestyle," Ahmed says. "That would include exercising, improving your sleep pattern, stopping any tobacco use, and eating healthy." Reducing dietary sodium and enhancing potassium intake are also recommended, as is limiting alcohol.

"If those measures are not working, your primary care provider can talk with you about the multiple medications that are available to treat high blood pressure," Ahmed says. "It is a decision that is individualized to a patient's needs and response to therapy."