What is Hypertension?

Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force with which your heart pumps blood round your body. When the heart contracts, the highest pressure it produces is known as the systolic pressure; when the heart relaxes, the lowest pressure it produces is known as the diastolic pressure. If you are told your blood pressure is 120/80 this means you have a systolic pressure of 120 and a diastolic pressure of 80.

Blood pressure is not constant and changes depending on what you are doing. For example, when you exercise your blood pressure rises and when you sleep it falls. If your blood pressure is persistently higher than normal you will be diagnosed as having hypertension.

Hypertension is though to affect around three in 10 adults in England and becomes more common with age.

What are the symptoms?

High blood pressure does not usually cause any symptoms. However, in rare cases the blood pressure may be so high that it causes headaches, dizziness or disturbance of vision. To find out whether you have high blood pressure you will need to visit your GP to have your blood pressure read. Your doctor or nurse will usually check your blood pressure more than once before they decide whether you need treatment.

In nine out of 10 people with high blood pressure, there is no obvious cause; it just happens - this is referred to as essential hypertension. Rarely, it can be caused by kidney problems, or medication such as the contraceptive pill. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are taking any medication.

What treatments are available for hypertension?

There is no cure for hypertension but it can be treated easily and effectively. There are lots of lifestyle changes that you can make to help lower your blood pressure (see below). If lifestyle changes alone do not lower your blood pressure then there are medications that your doctor can prescribe. In most cases a combination of two or more medicines will be needed. You should continue with the lifestyle changes while taking the medication. Although your blood pressure will usually return to normal with treatment, it may rise again if you stop treatment, so it is important that you follow the doctor's instructions carefully and attend for regular blood pressure readings. Never stop taking your medication without first consulting your doctor.

If hypertension is left untreated you are more likely to suffer a heart attack (myocardial infarction [MI]) or stroke (cerebrovascular accident [CVA]), and you may develop heart or kidney failure. Blood pressure increases with age and this may be one of the reasons why heart attacks and strokes are more common in older people.

Are there any side effects from the treatment?

Most people will not suffer any side effects from their medication. Very occasionally if your blood pressure is brought too low, dizziness and fainting may occur. If you think that you have any side effects, tell your doctor immediately. In many cases, changing to a different type of medication will help.

How will hypertension affect my life?

As long as you take your medication and have your blood pressure checked regularly, having hypertension should not affect your quality of life. Although you may feel that some of the suggested lifestyle changes are difficult to achieve, if you persist you should feel healthier in the long term.

Self-help measures

  • If you smoke, try to give up
  • Try to reach your ideal body weight
  • Moderate your alcohol intake. Do not exceed 14 units per week (spread over three or more days) with two or more drink-free days each week. One unit = 1/2 pint of average-strength beer (approximately 250mL); 1/2 glass of wine (76mL); 1 standard pub measure of spirits (25mL).
  • Eat a low-fat, high-fibre diet. Include more fruit or vegetables and oily fish
  • Limit your salt intake to <6g/day by cutting down on added salt and processed or junk food
  • Take regular exercise. Aim to build up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise on at least five days of the week
  • Avoid persistent stress. Try to take it easy and relax
  • Take all medication exactly as directed by your doctor. Do not give your medication to anyone else
  • Do not stop your treatment without consulting your doctor first
  • Do not start taking any other medication without consulting your doctor first
  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly

Further information available from:

Blood Pressure UK
Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine
Charterhouse Square
London EC1M 6BQ
Tel: 020 7882 6255
 - 020 7882 6218
 - help@bloodpressureuk.org
Internet: www.bloodpressureuk.org

British Heart Foundation
Greater London House
180 Hampstead Road
London NW1 7AW
Tel: 020 7554 0000
Heart Help Line:
 - 0300 330 3311 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm)
 - hearthelpline@bhf.org.uk
Internet: www.bhf.org.uk 

Fact sheet provided by MIMS

Date last reviewed: September 2016

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