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Reasons for High Blood Pressure

There are several things that can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension). Doctors classify it using two categories:

Primary Hypertension (Essential Hypertension)

High blood pressure that has no known cause is called primary, or essential, hypertension. This is the most common type of high blood pressure. It develops slowly, and often people with primary hypertension have few or no symptoms. Genetics (a family history of high blood pressure) and unhealthy lifestyle habits can increase your risk of developing this type of high blood pressure.

Secondary Hypertension 

High blood pressure that can be linked to a specific medical condition or activity is called secondary hypertension. There are several things that can cause secondary hypertension, including: 

  • Underlying health conditions: Certain health conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea or kidney disease, disrupt your body’s balance of oxygen and blood flow. Your brain signals your body to adjust to these changes, raising blood pressure and keeping it elevated.
  • Medications: Some medications—including decongestants, birth control pills, and over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications—narrow your blood vessels. Your heart has to pump harder to push blood out to your body.
  • Illegal drugs: Illegal drugs like amphetamines and cocaine narrow the arteries where blood flow to your heart. Your heart has to beat faster to get enough blood, damaging the heart muscle over time.
  • Adrenal gland tumors: These tumors stimulate your body to release more hormones, which disrupt normal kidney and heart function, leading to higher blood pressure.
  • Thyroid problems: When your thyroid releases too many hormones (hyperthyroidism) it causes your heart to beat faster and worker harder. When your thyroid releases too few hormones (hypothyroidism) it weakens your heart muscle so it has to work harder to pump blood. Both conditions raise blood pressure.
  • Congenital conditions: Heart conditions present at birth can cause narrowing in the blood vessels, elevated heart rate, or other symptoms that affect blood pressure.

It is possible to have both primary and secondary hypertension. For example, a person who has primary hypertension may notice that their blood pressure gets worse after they start taking certain medications.

Hypertension Risk Factors

You may be at higher risk for primary hypertension if:

1. You are 65 or older.

High blood pressure risk increases as you get older. Your arteries naturally get stiffer with age, even if you eat well and have a healthy lifestyle.

2. You are overweight or obese.

Being overweight or obese causes many changes in your body. It can disrupt hormones that increase the risk of high blood pressure. It can also cause plaque buildup in your arteries that forces your heart to work harder.

3. You eat a diet high in sodium.

When you eat a lot of sodium (salt), your body retains extra water to flush it out. More water in your body puts more stress on your heart and blood vessels, leading to higher blood pressure.

4. You are Black.

Black people are more likely to develop high blood pressure. They are also more likely to have serious complications from high blood pressure, such as strokeheart failure, or kidney failure.

5. Hypertension runs in your family.

Some people are genetically predisposed to have higher blood pressure. Doctors don’t know exactly how genetics affects blood pressure, but they do know the condition often occurs in families.

6. You do not exercise enough.

Exercise strengthens your heart so it can pump blood with less work. When a strong heart pumps blood efficiently, it lowers the pressure on blood vessels.

7. You smoke or chew tobacco.

Nicotine in cigarettes and chewing tobacco narrows your blood vessels, and your heart has to work harder to pump blood.

8. You drink too much alcohol.

Drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day (women) or two per day (men) raises hormone levels that signal your blood vessels to constrict (tighten). It also reduces fluid in your body, causing you to retain water and putting pressure on your heart and blood vessels.

What Causes Blood Pressure To Spike?

Many of our daily activities can cause a spike in blood pressure. A sudden spike in blood pressure is often only temporary. However, if you experience blood pressure spikes often, they can still put a strain on your heart.   

Causes of high blood pressure spikes include:  

  • anxiety and stress, which cause a surge in hormones and elevate your heart rate;
  • dehydration, which reduces the volume of blood in your body;
  • drinking coffee or beverages high in caffeine, which trigger your body to release adrenaline that narrows your blood vessels and raises your heart rate;
  • needing to go to the bathroom, which puts pressure on your kidneys; and
  • sudden or severe pain, which triggers an immune system response and elevates temporary stress levels in your body.

Some people notice their blood pressure is higher than normal when they get it measured at a doctor’s office. People often call this the white coat effect or white coat syndrome. The stress or anxiety of being in a doctor’s office can temporarily spike blood pressure. If your blood pressure measurement seems high, ask your provider to take it again 15 to 20 minutes later, or at the end of your office visit.

How to Determine if Your Blood Pressure Is High

Doctors often call hypertension a silent killer because people have few or no symptoms. The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to measure it at your doctor’s office or with:

  • an at-home blood pressure monitor, or
  • a monitoring device in a retail store (such as your local pharmacy).

You will get the most accurate measurement at a provider’s office, an urgent care clinic, or a hospital. Providers measure blood pressure using two numbers:

  • Systolic pressure measures how much pressure is on your artery walls when your heart muscle contracts and pumps blood. This is the first number in blood pressure readings.
  • Diastolic pressure measures the pressure when the heart muscle relaxes in between heart beats. This is the second number in blood pressure readings.

A healthy blood pressure is at or below 130/80 (pronounced 130 over 80). Doctors classify high blood pressure into different stages. You can have high blood pressure even if only one number is above the “normal” range. 

  • Stage 1 (mild hypertension): 130-139 systolic or 80-89 diastolic pressure
  • Stage 2 (moderate): 140-169 systolic or 90-119 diastolic pressure
  • Hypertensive crisis: 180/120 or higher

When to See a Hypertension Specialist

Schedule an appointment to see a hypertension specialist if your blood pressure is mild or moderately high (above 130/80). Our providers will:

  • monitor your blood pressure,
  • discuss lifestyle changes to lower your blood pressure, and
  • prescribe medications for hypertension if appropriate.

Getting the right treatment can reduce your risk of strokeheart attack, or other health problems that come from having high blood pressure. 

Go to the emergency room or call 911 right away if:

Make an Appointment at University of Utah Health

Call 801-585-7676 to make an appointment with a hypertension specialist. You do not need a referral to schedule an appointment with our providers. However, some insurance coverage requires a referral from a primary care provider to see a specialist. Contact your insurance carrier with any questions about your coverage.

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