The Dangers of High Blood Pressure
Have you ever wondered why, or even if, it matters whether someone’s blood pressure is raised? After all, if someone feels fine, it probably isn’t doing them any harm, right? Actually, many people with high blood pressure feel perfectly well within themselves, when really the raised blood pressure can be causing slow but steady damage all over the body. It’s important to know what possible effects hypertension can have on your body and to check your blood pressure proactively, rather than rely on being prompted by the appearance of a new symptom, or worse, a major health event like a stroke or heart attack.
Complications from High Blood Pressure
According to the WHO, hypertension is responsible for about half of all Strokes and Heart Attacks. Both of these fall under the umbrella term of ‘cardiovascular disease’ – meaning a problem with the heart or blood vessels. Hypertension causes atherosclerosis – a build-up of fatty tissue inside an artery, which reduces the blood flow through it and can even block it off completely. When this happens to a blood vessel in the brain, it causes a stroke. When it happens to a blood vessel supplying the muscular walls of the heart itself (coronary artery), it causes a heart attack. If it happens to a blood vessel further away, it is termed Peripheral Artery Disease. A classic example of the latter is Intermittent Claudication – a painful and limiting condition where calf pain occurs on walking.
Raised blood pressure can cause an increase in the size of the main pumping chamber of the heart, the left ventricle (left ventricular hypertrophy). This happens in a third to half of people with hypertension and typically happens more in those whose blood pressure is more severely raised. If the left ventricle grows larger, the heart becomes less efficient and coordinated in its pumping, causing a host of problems including Heart Failure.
Abnormal Heart Rhythms (also known as arrhythmias)
This describes an interruption to the usual ‘lub dub… lub dub’ pattern of your heartbeat. One of the more well-known varieties of abnormal rhythms is Atrial Fibrillation, or AF. This is when the smaller two chambers at the top of the heart (the left and right atria, who normally make up the ‘lub’ portion of ‘lub dub’) contract erratically and frantically. AF can (but doesn’t always) cause a life-threatening disruption in the way the heart beats which may present with symptoms of shortness of breath, chest pain or feeling light-headed. Regardless of whether this happens, it always causes turbulent blood flow. This increases the risk of a clot developing, which could cause a stroke if it gets lodged in an artery in the brain.
Hypertension can both be caused by a problem with the kidneys or lead to Chronic Kidney Disease, where the hypertension harms the kidneys. Imagine the kidneys are a sieve. The things caught in the sieve stay in the blood, and what is let through escapes in the urine. Hypertension puts too much pressure on the sieve and can cause bigger holes to appear, meaning things get filtered through that shouldn’t, such as proteins. Damage to the blood vessels in the kidney (atherosclerosis) means that they can’t filter as efficiently as they should, and a lot of fluid that should go in the urine stays in the blood. This extra fluid in the blood vessels can make the blood pressure rise higher, causing a vicious cycle. When this gets particularly bad, it can lead to Kidney Failure.
Dementia can occur when a rise in blood pressure damages the barrier between the blood and the brain. This then leads to protein leaking into the brain, which can damage and kill brain cells according to Alzheimer’s disease international.
Eyesight Problems (also known as hypertensive retinopathy)
If hypertensive retinopathy is present, and the blood pressure isn’t treated, it can sadly lead to loss of vision within a short period of time.
While Erectile Dysfunction can have a variety of causes, it’s not uncommonly due to problems with the blood supply to the penis. Raised blood pressure can cause damage to the arteries here (atherosclerosis), just like elsewhere in the body, meaning less blood can get through.
Hypertension is a major risk factor for several serious, life-threatening, and life-altering conditions. Half of the people with it don’t know they have it, as it doesn’t typically show symptoms. It’s easy to check your blood pressure and there are effective ways to lower it, reducing the risk of developing a major complication if it’s raised. If you have any questions about your own blood pressure, please do speak to a GP or visit www.bloodpressureuk.org.
Dr. Katie Stephens
Dr Katie has extensive experience working as both an NHS GP for many years as well as in private telehealth. Alongside getting her MBChB (University of Manchester, 2007) and MRCGP (2012), she also completed additional certifications, doing USMLE Steps 1-3 (United States Medical Licensing Examinations) and obtaining her cert ECFMG in 2015, and DRCOG in 2016. Katie’s special interests include Cardiology and medical training.
GMC reference no: 6162998