Carrying a lot of extra weight around your middle or sprinkling too much salt onto your food at each meal can cause high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension. Stress and your genes can also bring your blood pressure up. Sometimes when your blood pressure is high, your doctor might not be able to find any direct cause for it. That's what's called essential hypertension.
When your doctor talks to you about your blood pressure, he's referring to the force of your blood pushing against your artery walls. The top number in your blood pressure is called the systolic blood pressure. That's the pressure in your blood vessels while your heart is pumping. The bottom number is called the diastolic blood pressure and that's the pressure when your heart rests between beats.
You want your blood pressure to stay at 120 over 80 or less. A blood pressure of 140 over 90 or more is considered high. Why is high blood pressure a problem, you ask? Well, you can think of high blood pressure as being like a river that's rushing too hard, eventually it's going to damage its banks. With high blood pressure, the extra force of your blood pushing against your artery walls eventually damages them. It can also damage your heart, your kidneys, and other organs.
So, how do you know if you have high blood pressure?
Often you don't know, because high blood pressure doesn't have symptoms like a fever or cough. Usually there are no symptoms at all, and you won't be able to find out that you have high blood pressure unless you've had it checked, or you've developed complications like heart disease or kidney problems.
You can check your blood pressure yourself with a home monitor, or have it checked at your doctor's office. If it's high, you and your doctor will set a blood pressure goal. You can achieve that goal in different ways, like eating a healthy diet, exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, quitting smoking, eating less than 1,500 milligrams of salt per day, and using programs like meditation and yoga to relieve your stress.
But if these lifestyle changes aren't enough, your health care provider might prescribe one or more medicines to lower your blood pressure.
The reason why doctors are so serious about a patients' blood pressure is that having uncontrolled blood pressure can cause a lot of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and loss of vision. When it comes to your blood pressure, it's best to be proactive. Call your doctor for a check-up if you haven't had one in a while, and get your blood pressure checked. If it's high, follow your doctor's advice for bringing it back into a healthy range.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.