High Blood Pressure

Hypertension (HTN or HT), also known as high blood pressure or arterial hypertension, is a chronic medical condition in which the blood pressure in the arteries is elevated. Blood pressure is expressed by two measurements, the systolic and diastolic pressures, which are the maximum and minimum pressures, respectively, in the arterial system. The systolic pressure occurs when the left ventricle is most contracted; the diastolic pressure occurs when the left ventricle is most relaxed prior to the next contraction. Normal blood pressure at rest is within the range of 100–140 mmHg systolic and 60–90 mmHg diastolic. Hypertension is present if the blood pressure is persistently at or above 140/90 millimeters mercury (mmHg) for most adults; different criteria apply to children.

Hypertension usually does not cause symptoms initially, but sustained hypertension over time is a major risk factor for hypertensive heart disease, coronary artery disease, stroke, aortic aneurysm, peripheral artery disease, and chronic kidney disease.

Hypertension is classified as either primary (essential) hypertension or secondary hypertension. About 90–95% of cases are categorized as primary hypertension, defined as high blood pressure with no obvious underlying cause. The remaining 5–10% of cases are categorized as secondary hypertension, defined as hypertension due to an identifiable cause, such as chronic kidney disease, narrowing of the aorta or kidney arteries, or an endocrine disorder such as excess aldosterone, cortisol, or catecholamines.

Dietary and lifestyle changes can improve blood pressure control and decrease the risk of health complications, although treatment with medication is still often necessary in people for whom lifestyle changes are not enough or not effective. The treatment of moderately high arterial blood pressure (defined as >160/100 mmHg) with medications is associated with an improved life expectancy. The benefits of treatment of blood pressure that is between 140/90 mmHg and 160/100 mmHg are less clear, with some reviews finding no benefit and other reviews finding benefit.

Signs and symptoms

Hypertension is rarely accompanied by any symptoms, and its identification is usually through screening, or when seeking healthcare for an unrelated problem. Some with high blood pressure report headaches (particularly at the back of the head and in the morning), as well as lightheadedness, vertigo, tinnitus (buzzing or hissing in the ears), altered vision or fainting episodes. These symptoms, however, might be related to associated anxiety rather than the high blood pressure itself.

On physical examination, hypertension may be associated with the presence of changes in the optic fundus seen by ophthalmoscopy. The severity of the changes typical of hypertensive retinopathy is graded from I–IV; grades I and II may be difficult to differentiate. The severity of the retinopathy correlates roughly with the duration and/or the severity of the hypertension.

Causes

Primary hypertension

Hypertension results from a complex interaction of genes and environmental factors. Numerous common genetic variants with small effects on blood pressure have been identified as well as some rare genetic variants with large effects on blood pressure, but the genetic basis of hypertension is still poorly understood.

Blood pressure rises with aging and the risk of becoming hypertensive in later life is considerable. Several environmental factors influence blood pressure. High salt intake raises the blood pressure in salt sensitive individuals; lack of exercise, obesity, stress, and depression can play a role in individual cases. The possible role of other factors such as caffeine consumption, and vitamin D deficiency are less clear. Insulin resistance, which is common in obesity and is a component of syndrome X (or the metabolic syndrome), is also thought to contribute to hypertension. Events in early life, such as low birth weight, maternal smoking, and lack of breast feeding may be risk factors for adult essential hypertension, although the mechanisms linking these exposures to adult hypertension remain unclear.

Secondary hypertension

Secondary hypertension results from an identifiable cause. Kidney disease is the most common secondary cause of hypertension. Hypertension can also be caused by endocrine conditions, such as Cushing’s syndrome, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, Conn’s syndrome or hyperaldosteronism, hyperparathyroidism and pheochromocytoma. Other causes of secondary hypertension include obesity, sleep apnea, pregnancy, coarctation of the aorta, excessive liquorice consumption and certain prescription medicines, herbal remedies and illegal drugs. Arsenic exposure through drinking water has been shown to correlate with elevated blood pressure.

Diagnosis

Hypertension is diagnosed on the basis of a persistently high blood pressure. Traditionally, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence recommends three separate sphygmomanometer measurements at one monthly intervals. The American Heart Association recommends at least three measurements on at least two separate health care visits. An exception to this is those with very high blood pressure readings especially when there is poor organ function. Initial assessment of the hypertensive people should include a complete history and physical examination. With the availability of 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitors and home blood pressure machines, the importance of not wrongly diagnosing those who have white coat hypertension has led to a change in protocols. In the United Kingdom, current best practice is to follow up a single raised clinic reading with ambulatory measurement, or less ideally with home blood pressure monitoring over the course of 7 days. Pseudohypertension in the elderly or noncompressibility artery syndrome may also require consideration. This condition is believed to be due to calcification of the arteries resulting in abnormally high blood pressure readings with a blood pressure cuff while intra arterial measurements of blood pressure are normal. Orthostatic hypertension is when blood pressure increases upon standing.

Once the diagnosis of hypertension has been made, physicians will attempt to identify the underlying cause based on risk factors and other symptoms, if present. Secondary hypertension is more common in preadolescent children, with most cases caused by kidney disease. Primary or essential hypertension is more common in adolescents and has multiple risk factors, including obesity and a family history of hypertension. Laboratory tests can also be performed to identify possible causes of secondary hypertension, and to determine whether hypertension has caused damage to the heart, eyes, and kidneys. Additional tests for diabetes and high cholesterol levels are usually performed because these conditions are additional risk factors for the development of heart disease and may require treatment.

Serum creatinine is measured to assess for the presence of kidney disease, which can be either the cause or the result of hypertension. Serum creatinine alone may overestimate glomerular filtration rate and recent guidelines advocate the use of predictive equations such as the Modification of Diet in Renal Disease (MDRD) formula to estimate glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). eGFR can also provide a baseline measurement of kidney function that can be used to monitor for side effects of certain antihypertensive drugs on kidney function. Additionally, testing of urine samples for protein is used as a secondary indicator of kidney disease. Electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG) testing is done to check for evidence that the heart is under strain from high blood pressure. It may also show whether there is thickening of the heart muscle (left ventricular hypertrophy) or whether the heart has experienced a prior minor disturbance such as a silent heart attack. A chest X-ray or an echocardiogram may also be performed to look for signs of heart enlargement or damage to the heart.

Prevention

Much of the disease burden of high blood pressure is experienced by people who are not labeled as hypertensive.  Consequently, population strategies are required to reduce the consequences of high blood pressure and reduce the need for antihypertensive drug therapy. Lifestyle changes are recommended to lower blood pressure, before starting drug therapy. The 2004 British Hypertension Society guidelines proposed the following lifestyle changes consistent with those outlined by the US National High BP Education Program in 2002 for the primary prevention of hypertension:

  • maintain normal body weight for adults (e.g. body mass index 20–25 kg/m2)
  • reduce dietary sodium intake to <100 mmol/ day (<6 g of sodium chloride or <2.4 g of sodium per day)
  • engage in regular aerobic physical activity such as brisk walking (≥30 min per day, most days of the week)
  • limit alcohol consumption to no more than 3 units/day in men and no more than 2 units/day in women
  • consume a diet rich in fruit and vegetables (e.g. at least five portions per day);

Effective lifestyle modification may lower blood pressure as much as an individual antihypertensive drug. Combinations of two or more lifestyle modifications can achieve even better results.