Our doctors and medical advisers often warn us about the dangers of hypertension or high blood pressure, but what exactly is this condition and why is it such a cause for concern? In this article I hope to provide simple answers to all these questions and hopefully reinforce the message that we should all keep a close watch on our blood pressure in order to avoid storing up health problems for ourselves in the future.

In order to illustrate the effect that high blood pressure has on our heart, I want you to picture the heart as a toothpaste tube. When you squeeze toothpaste out of the tube you can feel a certain amount of resistance right? Now imagine that the toothpaste nozzle is only half as wide, you have to exert much more pressure in order to get the toothpaste out. This is the same situation as our heart encounters if our arteries are narrowed, for example due to the effects of cholesterol deposits.

Similarly, if any underlying health condition or external influence (such as drugs or alcohol) causes our heart rate to significantly increase, this too exerts additional pressure within our heart itself and also the arterial system. Over time this increased workload on our cardiovascular system can cause many serious and often fatal side effects, such as heart attacks and strokes.

Hopefully the analogy above has given you some idea of the effects hypertension can have on our body, but what of its actual causes?

High blood pressure is commonly classed into two types:

Essential High Blood Pressure – The causes of this type of high blood pressure are not fully understood, but it is usually considered to be linked to certain background risk factors such as advancing age, heavy drinking, smoking, lack of exercise and high cholesterol diet.

Secondary High Blood Pressure – This type of high blood pressure actually has a direct causal link back to a specific health condition or external influence. This can be such things as narrowing or hardening of the arteries, diseases such as kidney disease, certain drugs (both prescribed and illegal) and alcohol abuse.

As the effects of this disease usually build over a prolonged period, it is important to have our blood pressure levels checked regularly in order that we can act on any dangerous upward trends.

If you have ever had your blood pressure measured, you may have seen the results written down as two figures, but what exactly do these figures mean? These two numbers actually represent systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure.

Systolic Blood Pressure - This is defined as the blood pressure that is exerted when the heart beats.

Diastolic Blood Pressure - This is defined as the background blood pressure that is exerted between heart beats.

You will typically see these two measurements written down as a combined figure such as 120/80 (spoken as 120 over 80). The systolic figure is usually presented first and the diastolic second.

120/80 is generally considered to be the baseline for a healthy measurement, but your actual figures will vary on a day to day basis dependent on a variety of factors. It is only if you consistently record measurements in excess of 140/90 that you would be considered to be suffering from hypertension.

These days in addition to visiting the doctor for a measurement, many people also carry out tests in the comfort of their own home. There are a wide range of blood pressure measuring devices available, and at prices to suit almost any budget. If you are under treatment from your doctor for a blood pressure condition, it may also be possible to calibrate your home equipment against your doctor's to ensure consistency of measurements.

To summarize, it is of vital importance to our long term health to identify and act on any dangerously high levels or upward trends in our blood pressure. With the easy availability of good quality measuring equipment these days, it has never been easier or more convenient for us to do this. Please remember though, if you do decide to take your own measurements, do not delay in consulting your doctor or medical practitioner if you have cause for concern about hypertension.