Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, affects millions of Americans, from children to older adults. High blood pressure can be caused by many factors, but mostly notably are diabetes, obesity, and excessive alcohol consumption. High blood pressure happens when the pressure your blood exerts against the artery walls is too high, leading to life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease and stroke. Despite these severe health consequences, the vast majority of individuals have no symptoms. This is why hypertension is sometimes called a “silent” killer. Learn more about these potential symptoms and what that means for your health below.
What is Hypertension?
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the most common cardiovascular disease in the US. It is a condition where the pressure your blood puts on your artery walls is higher than normal ranges for a sustained period of time. Similar to the pressure needed to send air through a tube; your blood needs pressure to travel through your arteries. Just like too much pressure can damage a tire, high blood pressure can lead to a number of health conditions including potentially life-threatening conditions like stroke. Illnesses or medications that narrow the arteries increase high blood pressure. This is also why high blood pressure is so much more common with older adults. As we age, our arteries narrow meaning the same amount of pressure in a regular sized artery is equivalent to high blood pressure in a narrowed artery.
There are two types of hypertension. Essential hypertension is where the underlying cause of the high blood pressure is unknown, which may be as many as 95% of cases in the US. Secondary hypertension is when the direct cause of the high blood pressure can be determined. Common causes include kidney disease, tumors and birth control pills and pregnancy in women. Both of these types depend on your medical history and increase in likelihood with certain demographic factors and personal traits.
Hypertension Risk Factors Causes
High blood pressure is more common in certain demographic groups: African-Americans, lower-income, residents of the southeastern US, individuals older than 55, and men. Certain traits also increase your likelihood or could even cause high blood pressure:
- Overweight: Being more than 15% of the healthy weight for your body mass increases your likelihood of getting high blood pressure significantly. Obese people develop high blood pressure two to six times more often than healthy individuals.
- Heavy alcohol drinkers: Those who drink more than two drinks a day have higher rates of high blood pressure then those who do not.
- Inactive: Being inactive contributes to obesity and high blood pressure.
- Smokers: Smoking negatively affects key body functions, including your ability to exercise, and therefore also contributes to obesity and high blood pressure.
Additionally, a diet heavy in salt, regular use of decongestants or medications like ibuprofen or birth control, as well as illegal drugs like cocaine all increase your chance of having high blood pressure.
What are Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure is extremely common in adults, and it is estimated as many as 30% of individuals have varying degrees of high blood pressure. High blood pressure can be present for years without hypertension symptoms, but can still damage your heart and blood vessels. In fact, most people have no symptoms. For those who do show signs or have severe enough hypertension, high blood pressure signs may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Confusion or fatigue
- Chest pain
- Vision problems
- Blood in urine
- Irregular heartbeat
- Pounding in your ears, neck, or chest
Any of these high blood pressure symptoms could lead to a hypertensive crisis eventually increasing the likelihood of a stroke or a heart attack. Even with no symptoms, untreated hypertension can also cause kidney failure, aneurysms, leg pain while walking, or eye problems. High blood pressure may be very serious, but it is extremely easy to detect. You should have semi-regular checkups to check for high blood pressure regardless of whether you have symptoms are not.
Plenty of additional symptoms of high blood pressure can be caused by another illness or condition making high blood pressure not the root cause of illness or discomfort. These include:
- Facial flushing: Facial flushing happens when facial blood vessels dilate causing blushing and feeling warm. There are numerous causes of facial flushing such as weather, spicy foods, or stress but it is not caused by high blood pressure.
- Hot flashes: Some individuals worry that hot flashes in men/high blood pressure are correlated, but similar to women, they can be caused by prescription medication, being overweight, anxiety, thyroid illnesses, and sudden hormone changes.
- Dizziness: Dizziness is not caused by high blood pressure, but it can be similarly caused by a number of blood pressure medications. It should not be ignored and you should contact a doctor immediately if you have sudden dizziness, as it can be a warning sign for many illnesses, including having a stroke.
- Blood spots in eyes: Medically known as subconjunctival hemorrhage, this is more common for people with diabetes. Neither diabetes nor high blood pressure cause blood spots, but should be seen by a doctor immediately.
A Note About Malignant Hypertension
Malignant hypertension is the sudden development of extremely high blood pressure and should be treated as a hypertensive crisis or medical emergency. Typically a person would jump to 180/120 blood pressure. This can be caused by untreated high blood pressure, missing high blood pressure medication, kidney disease, tumors, spinal cord injuries, or illegal drugs. It is very rare, where only 1% of individuals develop this condition, but it is life threatening. The main symptoms are:
- Sudden increase in high blood pressure
- Signs of organ damage, especially the kidneys or eyes
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Numbness in extremities
- Severe headache
In rare cases, malignant hypertension can also lead to brain swelling, a very dangerous condition called hypertensive encephalopathy. Symptoms include blindness, confusion, drowsiness, headaches, vomiting, seizures, and even a coma. If you have any of these symptoms or suspect you are having a hypertensive crisis, you should call 911 and seek medical care immediately.
Side Effects of High Blood Pressure
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is often called the “silent” killer, because it may have no signs or symptoms. Untreated high blood pressure can cause a number of diseases and even be life threatening. The most common severe complications of untreated hypertension are:
- Atherosclerosis: One of the most serious conditions that are caused by untreated hypertension, atherosclerosis is a build-up of plaque in the arteries. The plaque build-up means that there can be blocks in blood flow and when these blocks limit blood supply to the heart muscle, causing heart disease. Patients with atherosclerosis, experience chest pain when doing physical activity or stressed and they are much more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
- Heart disease: The number one cause of death from high blood pressure is hypertensive heart disease. This includes a group of conditions like heart failure, heart attack, and left ventricular hypertrophy. This results from high blood pressure thickening the heart muscles, and then those muscles becoming less effective. Symptoms for all of these diseases are shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling, irregular pulse, nausea, and fatigue.
- Stroke: A stroke is four to six times more likely for individuals with high blood pressure. Sometimes called a brain attack, a stroke happens when blood flow to parts of the brain are cut off, causing brain cells to be deprived of glucose and oxygen and result in permanent brain damage. Signs of a stroke are very sudden, such as numbness in one side of the body, dizziness, blurred vision, or confusion. If you experience these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
- Kidney disease: High blood pressure can damage blood vessels and filters that lead to the kidney. In earlier stages this causes kidney disease or renal disease, and in later stages can cause total kidney failure, where dialysis or kidney transplants are necessary. Symptoms include a decrease in urine, fluid retention, or needing to urinate more often.
- Eye disease: Along with the problems listed above, hypertension can cause eye disease by damaging the retina blood vessels, or where the eye puts images in focus. Called hypertensive retinopathy, the damage to your vision can be very serious.
If you have any of the symptoms described, you should go see a doctor. In general, if you have any of the major risk factors, you should be tested for high blood pressure regularly.
Additionally, you should call 911 immediately if you have any of the following symptoms as they can be a sign of untreated high blood pressure resulting in a hypertensive emergency:
- Blurred vision or headache
- Numbness on one side of the body
- Increasing shortness of breath, chest pain, or confusion
Should any of these non-emergency symptoms arise or if you suspect you may be at risk for high blood pressure, it is very important to get tested. Even if you have no symptoms as do the vast majority of those with hypertension, you should be getting check-ups regularly. You can make an appointment with your primary care physician or see an online doctor in order to be tested.