Blood Pressure

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels (arteries) as the heart pumps blood. Blood pressure can go up with exercise, stress, pain, or strong emotions. It goes down when you are resting, asleep, or feeling calm and relaxed.

Over time, if your blood pressure rises and stays high, it can damage the body in many ways. Usually you cannot tell by the way you feel that your blood pressure is high. The only way to find out if your blood pressure is high is to have it measured.

How is blood pressure measured?

Your healthcare provider measures blood pressure using an inflatable cuff around your upper arm and either a stethoscope or a machine that displays the result. Two levels of blood pressure—systolic and diastolic—are measured when someone takes your blood pressure.

  • Systolic pressure: The systolic pressure is the higher number in a blood pressure reading. It is the pressure on the blood vessels each time the heart pumps.
  • Diastolic pressure: The diastolic pressure is the lower number in a blood pressure reading. It is the pressure on the blood vessels when the heart rests between beats.

In the blood pressure reading of 120/80 ("120 over 80"), 120 is the systolic pressure, and the second number, 80, is the diastolic pressure.

What do the blood pressure measurements mean?

Knowing your blood pressure numbers is important, even if you are feeling fine.

  • Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80.
  • Borderline high blood pressure is 120/80 or higher but less than 140/90.
  • High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher.
    • If you have diabetes, 140/80 or higher is considered to be high blood pressure.
    • If you have chronic kidney disease, 130/80 is considered high blood pressure.

Why is high blood pressure a problem?

Even though you can't feel it, high blood pressure is dangerous over time. It can be hurting your blood vessels, heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes even though you may have no symptoms. The higher your blood pressure is, the more it increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious medical problems.

How can I keep my blood pressure low?

If you have high blood pressure, lowering it and keeping it low can prevent a heart attack or stroke. Keeping your blood pressure under control can help prevent long-term health problems as well, such as heart failure, kidney failure, and blindness.

If your blood pressure is too high, your provider may recommend lifestyle changes to help you lower your blood pressure, such as:

  • Lose excess weight. If you are overweight, losing even 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
  • Use less salt (sodium) in your food. Check the levels of sodium listed on food labels. Most of the sodium you eat can be hidden in processed foods such as chips, crackers, canned or boxed foods, and restaurant food.
  • Follow a healthy eating plan that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Eat only enough calories to achieve or keep a healthy weight.
  • Be physically active. Ask your provider to give you a physical activity plan that tells you what kind of activity and how much is safe for you.
  • If you are a woman, don’t have more than 1 drink of alcohol a day. Men should not have more than 2 drinks a day. (Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure.)
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Find ways to relax and to manage or reduce stress.

If lifestyle changes don’t lower your blood pressure enough, your healthcare provider may prescribe one or more types of blood pressure medicine. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions for taking medicine. Don't take more or less medicine or stop taking a medicine without talking to your provider first. It can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking certain blood pressure medicines. If you are having problems paying for your medicines, let your provider know. You may be able to get help paying for them.

Be careful with nonprescription medicines or herbal supplements. Some can raise blood pressure. This includes diet pills, cold and pain medicines, and energy boosters. Read labels or ask your pharmacist if the medicine or supplement affects blood pressure. Some illegal drugs, like cocaine, can also affect blood pressure.

If your blood pressure is normal, check it at least once a year. If it's above normal, follow the schedule for checkups recommended by your healthcare provider. Your provider may recommend checking your blood pressure at home between checkups.

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