High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a condition where the arteries have an increased resistance against the flow of blood, causing the heart to pump harder to circulate the blood. Usually high blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. However, you can know if your blood pressure is high by having it checked regularly by your healthcare provider.

"Is my blood pressure normal?"

New risk guidelines for high blood pressure: Hypertension is now defined as 130/80 or higher, whereas the previous definition was 140/90 or higher.

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Causes of hypertension (high blood pressure)

There are many causes of hypertension. A majority of people with high blood pressure have what is known as essential hypertension or hypertension without a known cause. In general, these people are treated with medication. Hypertension can also be addressed with lifestyle changes such as improved diet and exercise. The following conditions are known to contribute to high blood pressure:

  • Being overweight
  • Excessive sodium intake
  • A lack of exercise and physical activity

People with hypertension should routinely have their blood pressure checked and be under the care of a physician.

Effects of high blood pressure

High blood pressure directly increases the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Hypertension is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality, substantially increasing the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, renal insufficiency and failure and early death. Because of the many risks associated with hypertension, early diagnosis and treatment is critical.

Approximately 5 percent of people with hypertension suffer from renal or renovascular hypertension, caused by narrowing or blockage in the arteries to the kidneys.

How to test or measure blood pressure

When you visit a doctor's office, he or she should check your blood pressure at the beginning of every appointment. To take your blood pressure at home you'll need a blood pressure cuff, monitor, and log book. You can also check your blood pressure at machines located at a grocery store, pharmacy or fitness center.

VIDEO: Take your blood pressure at home

click to watch video - picture of a man taking his blood pressure

What do the blood pressure numbers mean?

Each time the heart beats (contracts and relaxes), pressure is created inside the arteries. The pressure is greatest when blood is pumped out of the heart into the arteries or systole. When the heart relaxes between beats and blood is not moving out of the heart, the pressure falls in the arteries or diastole. Two numbers are recorded when measuring blood pressure:

Top number (systolic pressure)

"Systolic pressure" refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body.

Bottom number (diastolic pressure

"Diastolic pressure" refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart is at rest and is filling with blood.

Before electronic/digital blood pressure machines were invented, the blood pressure reading was always done using a traditional mercury filled blood pressure reader like the one still used in many medical facilities. These traditional blood pressure readers have an indicator column filled with mercury. That is why the systolic and diastolic pressures are still recorded as "mm Hg" (millimeters of mercury). This recording represents how high the mercury column is raised by the pressure of the blood.