What is blood pressure?

Each time your heart beats, blood is pumped out of the heart into arteries that carry the blood throughout your body. Your blood pressure is a measurement of the pressure/force inside your arteries with each heartbeat.

How is blood pressure measured?

A special cuff is used to measure your blood pressure. The cuff inflates and deflates, and during the process, your pressures are measured. Many times, a stethoscope is also used.

Blood pressure is recorded as two measurements: systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

  • Systolic blood pressure – the first or top number; the pressure in the arteries when the heart is beating and the arteries are filled with blood
  • Diastolic blood pressure – the second or bottom number; the pressure in the arteries when the heart is resting between beats

Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure does not stay the same at all times. When you are exercising or excited, your blood pressure goes up. When you are resting, your blood pressure is lower. Your blood pressure can also change due to age, medications you take, and changes in position.

What is high blood pressure?

Your blood pressure is a measurement of force/pressure of your blood against the artery walls while your heart beats.

For most adults, if the pressure is higher than normal (140/90 mmHg or higher), it is considered hypertension (high blood pressure).

If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure is 130/80 or higher.

If you have heart or vascular disease, high blood pressure is 135/85 or higher.

The blood pressure levels listed here are only guidelines. Your doctor may set a different blood pressure goal for you based on your medical condition.

Your doctor will likely tell you have hypertension if you have higher than normal blood pressure readings on 2 to 3 visits that are 1 to several weeks apart.


High blood pressure usually has no symptoms. It is often called the “silent killer” because it can damage your heart, kidneys and brain even though you feel no symptoms.

Tips for measuring your blood pressure

  • Sit for at least 5 minutes before your blood pressure is measured.
  • Do not smoke or drink caffeine 30 minutes before your blood pressure is measured.

If you are nervous when you go to the doctor, you could have a false high blood pressure reading. This is called “white coat syndrome.” If this happens, your doctor may ask you to:

  • Use a blood pressure monitor to check you blood pressure throughout the day. You can bring a record of your readings to your appointments.
  • Wear a blood pressure monitor. This monitor is attached to you. You will be asked to wear it for 24 hours. The monitor is usually programmed to take blood pressure readings every 15 to 30 minutes all day and night while you go about your normal activities. The doctor will evaluate the results. In some cases, home blood pressure monitors may also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of your treatment.

Why do I need to treat high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart and blood vessel disease. If untreated, it can lead to:

  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Heart enlargement
  • Heart failure
  • Peripheral vascular disease, such as lack of blood circulation in the legs, claudication, or aneurysms
  • Kidney disease
  • Hemorrhages in the blood vessels in the eyes

What should you do if you have high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Without treatment, you can have a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke, heart attack, enlarged heart, heart failure, peripheral vascular disease (such as poor circulation and pain in your legs), aneurysms, kidney disease, and broken blood vessels in your eyes. Treatment includes making changes recommended by your healthcare provider.

Diet and lifestyle changes:

  • Achieving and maintaining your ideal body weight
  • Regular exercise
  • Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet that is low in salt, fat and cholesterol, and contains lots of fresh fruits and vegetables*
    • Your diet is an important part of blood pressure control. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and limiting sodium (salt) help control blood pressure. Ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian for specific dietary guidelines. More information is available from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at www.nhlbi.nih.gov or the American Heart Association at www.americanheart.org.*
  • Having no more than two alcoholic drinks per day (for most men) and no more than one drink per day for women and lighter-weight individuals. One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
  • Controlling stress and anger
  • Avoiding all tobacco products
  • Other lifestyle changes, such as controlling lipid levels (LDL, cholesterol, triglycerides) and managing other health conditions, such as diabetes.

Medications and follow-up care:

  • Take all medications as prescribed. Do not stop or start taking any medication without first talking to your doctor. Blood pressure medication does not keep working after you stop taking it.
  • Some over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants, can change the way your blood pressure medication works.
  • Keep all follow-up appointments so your doctor can monitor your blood pressure, make any needed changes to your medications and help control your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Learn more about Strategies to Control High Blood Pressure

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