Blood pressure

Blood Pressure testHigh blood pressure is just one of the risk factors for developing heart and circulatory disease, along with high cholesterol, diabetes and other lifestyle factors. As many as 5 million people in the UK are walking around, undiagnosed, with high blood pressure.

The only way to know whether you have high blood pressure is to have it measured.

Everyone should know their blood pressure. We recommend that everyone over 40 gets their blood pressure taken by a nurse or doctor as part of a health check to assess their risk for getting heart and circulatory disease.

How Ann manages her high blood pressure
Ann has lost weight and gained confidence in her fight against high blood pressure, and so can you.

What is blood pressure?

Put simply, blood pressure is the pressure of blood in your arteries  - the tubes that carry your blood from your heart to your brain and the rest of your body. You need a certain amount of pressure to get the blood round your body.

The pressure of the blood flowing through your arteries changes at different times in the heartbeat cycle, as the heart. The pressure in your arteries will be at its highest when your heart is contracting and lowest as it relaxes before it pumps again.

What do the numbers mean?

Every blood pressure reading consists of two numbers or levels. They are shown as one number on top of the other and measured in mmHg, which means millimetres of mercury.  If your reading is 120/80mmHg, you might hear your doctor or nurse saying your blood pressure is "120 over 80".

  • The first (or top) number represents the highest level your blood pressure reaches when your heart contracts and pumps blood through your arteries - your systolic blood pressure. An example might be 130mmHg.
  • The second (or bottom) number represents the lowest level your blood pressure reaches as your heart relaxes between beats - your diastolic blood pressure. An example might be 75mmHg.

You should have your blood pressure measured so that you know what your target is. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, your blood pressure should be below 140/90mmHg.

If you have heart or circulatory disease, including being told you have coronary heart disease, angina, heart attack or stroke, have diabetes or kidney disease, then it is usually recommended that your blood pressure should be below 130/80mmHg.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure – or hypertension – means that your blood pressure is constantly higher than the recommended level. High blood pressure is not usually something that you can feel or notice, but over time if it is not treated, your heart may become enlarged making your heart pump less effectively, which could lead to heart failure.

Having high blood pressure increases your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

There isn’t always an explanation for the cause of high blood pressure, but these can play a part:

  • not doing enough physical activity
  • being overweight or obese
  • having too much salt in your diet
  • regularly drinking too much alcohol or
  • having a family history of high blood pressure.

Even if you don't have high blood pressure, making simple lifestyle changes may help prevent you having it in the future.

How does my GP know I have high blood pressure?

Your doctor or nurse will take your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is 140/90mmHg or higher you will probably have to have this rechecked several times.

The updated blood pressure guidelines produced by The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) have suggested that more people are offered ambulatory or home blood pressure monitoring if they are found to have high blood pressure, before confirming a diagnosis of high blood pressure.

Everyone's blood pressure varies during the day. Some people have a condition known as ‘white coat hypertension’ or ‘white coat syndrome’. This is a condition where your blood pressure rises only because someone is taking your blood pressure, and not because you have an underlying medical problem. If you have white coat hypertension, your blood pressure will return to normal when your doctor or nurse stops taking it. It can be very difficult to diagnose and this is why you may need to have your blood pressure rechecked several times.

If you are already being treated for high blood pressure and have any concerns about it, you should not stop taking your medication, but should discuss it with your GP at your next appointment.

What can I do to reduce my blood pressure?

If your doctor or nurse says you have high blood pressure, he/she is likely to encourage you to make some lifestyle changes to help reduce it. This may include increasing your physical activity, losing weight, reducing the salt in your diet, cutting down on alcohol and eating a balanced, healthy diet.

If your blood pressure is very high or these lifestyle changes do not reduce it enough, your doctor is likely to prescribe you medication to control it and to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

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