What does your blood pressure have in common with a garden hose? Quite a lot, in fact.
Increasing the pressure in a garden hose (whether by opening your faucet to full force or by plugging the end of the hose opening) can cause it to become rigid or even burst.
Blood in the arteries functions in much the same way. Consistently high blood pressure — also called hypertension — damages the tissues of the artery walls. While it’s fairly easy to replace a garden hose, hypertension can lead to serious medical problems and even death.
Hypertension is defined as a chronic condition in which the systolic blood pressure (the top number in the measurement that your health care provider gives you) exceeds 140 or diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) exceeds 90.
Although it’s normal to experience minor fluctuations throughout the day, one in three Americans experience high levels of blood pressure (exceeding 140/90) even without activity or stress. That can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease and even death. This increased risk is compounded in people with diabetes, high cholesterol, or smokers.
Generally, patients with hypertension can help control their high blood pressure by adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as:
▪ Losing weight
▪ Exercising more
▪ Stopping smoking
▪ Reducing stress
▪ Eating a balanced low-salt diet
When lifestyle changes aren’t adequate, there are numerous drug therapies that can be used separately or in combination to reduce hypertension. Occasionally, however, some people have what’s called “resistant hypertension,” which despite lifestyle changes and medications cannot be brought under control.
Researchers are exploring a novel approach to treat hypertension by manipulating the sympathetic nervous system signals that contribute to high blood pressure. The sympathetic nervous system regulates the vital functions of the body by connecting the brain to major organs such as the heart, kidneys and blood vessels. If the sympathetic nerves connecting the kidney to the brain are overactive, blood pressure rises.
One study is exploring the effect of renal denervation, a minimally invasive procedure that may potentially decrease the sensitivity of nerves lining the walls of the kidney arteries, thereby reducing the signals that cause hypertension.
Because it has no direct symptoms, hypertension is known as the “silent killer.” The best first step is to know your blood pressure readings and work with your doctor to control high blood pressure if necessary. If you’ve exhausted all other options, talk with your doctor about clinical trials such as this one that may contribute to better control of your hypertension.
Dr. Khaled Ziada is an interventional cardiologist at UK HealthCare’s Gill Heart Institute