High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a growing problem in the United States, affecting 1 in 4 people—that’s approximately 80 million Americans who are suffering from a condition that can negatively affect the body in many ways. High blood pressure is the single biggest risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and many other cardiovascular problems, and if left untreated, can lead to chronic illness and even death.

A visit to the doctor is the only way to find out if you have high blood pressure, but according to Summit Medical Group Oregon (SMGOR) board certified internist and cardiovascular disease specialist, Dr. Ian Riddock not enough people take this first step. “Hypertension is a disease characterized by the failure to properly deliver nutrients to the various organs and tissues of the body and then extract the waste products. Blood pressure is the key biomarker used to detect that disease. This is why a simple procedure such as taking a blood pressure can provide such useful information about a person’s body. The risks that high blood pressure poses often lies in the company that it keeps. We tend to find many other diseases and risk factors when we identify high blood pressure. Many, if not all of these other conditions are treatable, preventable and potentially curable.”

Dr. Riddock believes all patients are unique. “The diagnosis and treatment of hypertension is best approached by sitting down with a patient, listening to them and evaluating their individual circumstances. The education goes both ways, from patient to provider and back. It’s a worthwhile investment that ultimately leads to a longer and better life. When it comes to recognizing high blood pressure I see that as an opportunity to prevent stroke, heart failure and trips to the hospital. I think that resonates with patients.” he says.

In the below Q&A, Dr. Riddock provides a clear, comprehensive blood pressure overview, answering important questions that touch on the fundamentals and remind us that although no one is exempt from risk, there is plenty we can do to help prevent a potentially fatal chronic disease.

How do you describe blood pressure in a way that patients can understand?

I describe high blood pressure as a signal flair that the body is putting out informing us that it is not happy with its current state. It’s like the canary in a coal mine. It can often alert us to trouble before it manifests in catastrophic ways. If we look hard enough we may find evidence of structural damage or strain. Other problems such as obesity, diabetes, lack of activity or exercise, unhealthy diets, poor sleep patterns and various forms of cardiovascular disease start to become evident when one notices consistent elevations in blood pressure.

Why should people care about their blood pressure reading?

In the body, high blood pressure jeopardizes many organs, including the brain, eyes, heart and kidneys.

How is blood pressure measured?

When a person’s heart pumps, pressure is produced that moves blood forward inside the arteries (styolic pressure). After the heart relaxes, it re-fills and pressure falls (diastolic pressure). Like rowing a boat, the upper (systolic) number represents the pulling of the oars, the lower number (diastolic) is the momentum between strokes. So, the heart contracts (systolic) and then the blood continues to flow (diastolic) until the next beat.

Blood pressure is measured with an instrument called a sphygmomanometer. A cuff is placed around a patient’s arm and inflated until circulation is cut off. A valve slowly deflates the cuff, and the provider uses a stethoscope to listen for the sound of blood pulsing through the arteries (systolic pressure number). When the sound fades, the blood pressure of your heart at rest is measured (diastolic). Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

How do I know if my blood pressure is high?

Unless extremely high, high blood pressure has no symptoms. The only way to know if your blood pressure is raised, is to get it measured by your health care provider.

Is getting my blood pressure reading one time, enough?

An average of blood pressure readings taken over time will be most accurate. If you have no other health complications, it is recommended you get a professional reading done once a year.

What is a normal reading?

A normal blood pressure reading, as defined by the American Heart Association is less than 120/80 mm Hg.

What is considered a high reading?

A high blood pressure reading, as defined by the American Heart Association is 130-139/80-89 mm Hg. This is considered stage 1 hypertension. When you have high blood pressure (hypertension), either the systolic (top number) or diastolic (bottom number) pressure, or both are above the normal range. Depending on the numbers, it could be considered mild, moderate, or severe.

Blood pressure rises with exercise, excitement, anger, or fear and your provider will consider many factors (age, cholesterol level, smoking status, etc.) when deciding whether your blood pressure reading is a concern. A health care provider will likely recommend lifestyle changes and based on your personal risk for heart disease, will consider prescribing blood pressure medication.

Stage 2 hypertension: consistent reading of 140+/90+ mm Hg. A health care provider will likely recommend lifestyle changes and prescribe blood pressure medication.

Crisis Stage: 180+/120+ mm Hg. This stage requires immediate medical attention.

How does high or low blood pressure affect my health?

High blood pressure puts stress on your heart and arteries which can increase your chance for heart attack or stroke. Artery problems can also affect blood flow which in turn, affects other organs, including brain, kidneys, and eyes.

In general, you want your blood pressure to be as low as possible. However, when blood pressure is too low, you may experience dizziness, nausea, dehydration, blurred vision, shallow breathing, or fatigue.

 Are lifestyle changes enough to get blood pressure back on track, or is medication necessary?

Small changes in your daily routine can make a big difference. In general, achieving ideal weight favors normal blood pressure. For some people, getting more exercise is enough to reduce the need for blood pressure medication. However, it can take time for regular exercise to impact your blood pressure. Limiting salt, alcohol, and caffeine can also help to lower blood pressure. Eating a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help to lower your blood pressure as well. In general, achieving ideal weight favors normal blood pressure.

Your Blood Pressure Matters!

High blood pressure develops over time and can be deadly. If you do not know your blood pressure numbers, schedule a check up with your primary care physician. Patient education materials on controlling high blood pressure are also available at SMGOR’s Primary Care, Endocrinology, Cardiology, Pulmonology, and Nephrology offices.