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High, Low and in Between: Understanding Blood Pressure

High, Low and in Between: Understanding Blood Pressure

When you’re feeling good, it can be easy to assume that your blood pressure is normal. But this isn’t always the case.

“People often think, ‘I feel fine, how can I have high blood pressure?’” said Jackson Hatfield, MD, primary care physician at Archbold Primary Care. “People believe they would have symptoms to let them know there is a problem. Unfortunately, we can have high blood pressure for a long period of time before developing any symptoms.”

Because high blood pressure can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, it’s important to not only have your blood pressure checked on a regular basis but also know what your results mean.

Understanding Blood Pressure Readings

When you have your blood pressure taken, it’s measured using two numbers. The first number is your systolic blood pressure, or the pressure your blood creates in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number is your diastolic blood pressure, or the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats. For example, if your systolic reading was 120 and your diastolic reading was 75, your blood pressure would read as “120 over 75” or “120/75.”

Either number can be used to diagnose high blood pressure, also called hypertension. For people older than 50, systolic blood pressure is the number used to determine your risk of cardiovascular disease. This is because as people age, the systolic pressure goes up as arteries stiffen and plaque builds up.

What’s Your Range?

Blood pressure ranges are divided into five categories, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Normal: Less than 120/80
  • Elevated: 120-129 over 80 or less
  • Stage 1 hypertension: 130-139 over 80-89
  • Stage 2 hypertension: 140/90 or higher
  • Hypertensive crisis: 180/120 or higher

There are no set numbers to indicate blood pressure that is too low. Generally, if you feel fine, low blood pressure is nothing to worry about. But ti you have symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, nausea, fatigue, unusual thirst or inability to concentrate, reach out to your healthcare provider.

Culprits of High Blood Pressure

Many lifestyle factors can contribute to high blood pressure, including:

  • A diet high in fat and sodium
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Lack of exercise
  • Stress
  • Smoking

“One of the biggest things that leads to high blood pressure is our intake of salt,” Dr. Hatfield said. “It’s in foods that we eat in restaurants as well as foods we buy from the grocery store that are meant to last a long time, such as canned goods. These are often just packed with salt.”

Other factors that can put you at higher risk include certain health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol; a family history of high blood pressure; and taking certain medications.

Lowering Your Numbers

High blood pressure can be treated in different ways, depending on how high it is and your overall health.

“The numbers alert us to how aggressively we should treat a patient’s high blood pressure,” said Dr. Hatfield, noting that physicians also take into account other health conditions you may have when deciding on a course of treatment.

For patients with elevated or stage 1 hypertension, doctors often begin with recommending lifestyle changes, such as eating a low-sodium diet, reducing stress, not smoking and getting regular exercise.

“Even things such as walking for 20 to 30 minutes, five days a week, can have a great impact on your blood pressure and your heart health, as well as help you lose weight,” Dr. Hatfield said. “And normally, when weight goes down, blood pressure goes down.”

For patients with stage 2 hypertension, as well as some with stage 1, doctors will likely prescribe medication in addition to lifestyle changes. Medication works well for most people with few side effects, and some people need to stay on it for life to keep their blood pressure under control.

Dr. Hatfield also recommends that people with high blood pressure take their own measurements at home with a home blood pressure monitor on a regular basis. If you have normal blood pressure, you should still have it checked at your doctor’s office at least once per year, in addition to following a healthy lifestyle.

Questions about blood pressure? Visit to find a primary care provider.