In the latest in our health series, Professional Builder’s GP talks about blood pressure.
This month, we will cover hypertension (high blood pressure), why it is important to know about, and how it can be lowered to reduce the associated risks.
Often patients are unaware they have high blood pressure. This is because it can have no symptoms, and you might feel completely well. Sometimes, if the blood pressure is very high, people might experience dizziness or headaches but generally it is picked up during a routine check.
So what exactly is your blood pressure?
Your blood pressure is two measurements: the pressure that the heart needs to pump blood around the body (the top number; also called systolic pressure) and the resistance to blood flow in the blood vessels (the bottom number; also called diastolic pressure). The pressures are measured in a unit called millimetres of mercury (mmHg). We normally like to see BP readings of approximately 120/80 mmHg; if this goes up to beyond 140/90 mmHg it counts as a high reading. Blood pressure readings will go up and down in everybody, when we are asleep at night our blood pressure tends to be at its lowest. Being unwell, in pain or under stress will raise blood pressure too. Some people find going to see the doctor to be stressful and therefore have higher blood pressure readings if they are checked by a doctor rather than a nurse or healthcare assistant. This phenomenon is called “white coat hypertension”. For all of these reasons, sometimes your doctor may ask you to get your own monitor and take readings every day for a week or two. This gives a much better idea of the average blood pressure a person has.
Understanding high blood pressure is important because it can cause damage within the body. When the blood pressure is high, the heart has to work harder to keep pumping the blood around and the force of the blood being pumped harder can damage the blood vessels. Some blood vessels in the body are more likely than others to be damaged, including those that supply the heart, the brain and the kidneys. Having high blood pressure is a risk factor for having angina, a heart attack, a stroke or circulatory problems.
Some factors may make you more likely to have high blood pressure. These include:
- Age (over 65 years)
- Family history of high blood pressure
- Certain ethnicities (especially Afro-Caribbean people and people from the Indian sub-continent)
- Having a poor lifestyle (drinking alcohol, eating too much salt, being inactive, being overweight and feeling stressed).
People under the age of 40 who have high blood pressure may have underlying medical conditions and need further tests. In most people, the only tests that may need to be done are a heart tracing test (electrocardiogram or ECG), blood tests to check for diabetes, kidney function and cholesterol levels, and a urine test to check for protein. These tests help to determine if the heart or the kidneys have been damaged by the raised blood pressure.
Treatment for high blood pressure may depend on how high it is and your personal risks of developing complications. If your blood pressure is borderline and risks are low, your GP may advise you to go and look at your lifestyle to see what you can change yourself. Often losing weight, exercising more, eating a low salt diet and drinking less alcohol may be all that is needed to help reduce the blood pressure. If it is very high, or if you have already had a stroke or heart problem where high blood pressure could have contributed, the aim is to bring the blood pressure down back into the normal range to stop any further damage. Medication can help to do this. There are lots of different types of blood pressure lowering drugs; sometimes using two different ones together works best.
If you have a high blood pressure reading it is always important to go back and have another check, usually within a month. This can be done at GP surgeries, pharmacies, work related health checks or even at home with your own monitor. This helps to determine if treatment is working or if further steps need to be taken to control the blood pressure. Often people will become stable on medication and only need yearly blood pressure check-ups.
Having your blood pressure checked and treated might prevent a serious event like a stroke or heart attack – get it checked out!