One of the most common -- if not the most common -- conditions I treat people for is high blood pressure.
Hypertension, as it's formally known, runs rampant in the United States, partly because of our nation's typical diet that's high in salt, fat and our sedentary lifestyle.
The good news, however, is that high blood pressure is both preventable and treatable.
Patients are used to having their blood pressure checked at most doctor visits. Keeping a record over time of your BP readings is what helps your physician monitor for signs of hypertension.
Doctors become concerned when they see consistent readings above recommended guidelines, which were recently lowered by the American Heart Association. And, yes, they understand that sometimes your numbers could be elevated because you're anxious about your checkup.
Here's a closer look at what you need to know about high blood pressure, including who's at risk and what you can expect with treatment:
- The warning signs are hard to see. Hypertension is known as the "silent killer." Most people with high blood pressure experience no symptoms - or the signs are so negligible that they go unnoticed or are blamed on something else. The American Heart Association strongly warns: "If you ignore your blood pressure because you think a certain symptom or sign will alert you to the problem, you are taking a dangerous chance with your life."
- Some people are more at risk of developing hypertension. As we age, it's not uncommon to see elevations in blood pressure values. There is also a genetic component involved. So if your parents had it you're at greater risk. Also, hypertension is more prevalent and African-Americans and men.
- Lifestyle plays a huge role. Lack of physical activity, excessive weight and alcohol consumption, and high stress levels also can cause blood pressure to increase.
- Hypertension may at times be "co-morbid" with other issues such as high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea and coronary artery disease. There are also medical conditions that can cause what's known as "secondary hypertension," including certain kidney disorders.
- Untreated, there are serious health threats. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to increased pressure on the heart, which may result in heart enlargement that affects normal cardiac function. With compromised cardiac function, you're at increased risk for heart failure, stroke, chest pain, heart attack and other organ failure.
- You can bring BP levels down with lifestyle changes. The first step doctors take in most hypertension cases is to encourage patients to eat a healthier diet, including a low-salt diet, and to exercise more. Sometimes these things alone will help bring your blood pressure back to acceptable levels.
- Many times, medications are needed. If improved diet and exercises regimens don't work -- or if a patient initially presents with extremely high blood pressure -- doctors will prescribe medication. Expect your physician to check your electrolyte levels and run blood tests before writing a prescription. Should lifestyle changes and medications not work, you'll likely be referred to a specialist to check for any underlying health issues that could be contributing to your condition.
Your family doctor is the front-line defense in diagnosing and treating hypertension. With regular screenings, you can take a proactive approach to keeping your levels in check.
Dr. Marygold Fernandez is a primary care physician who practices at Poinciana Medical Center. For more information about Dr. Fernandez, search keyword "Fernandez" on PoincianaMedicalCenter.com's "Find a Doctor" page or call (888) 253-8117.