How High Blood Pressure Causes Serious Health Risks

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 10:58am

By John Messmer, MD

Arteries and organs regulate blood pressure

Our arteries are not simply tubes that carry blood like hoses. Arteries have a muscular layer that responds to the nervous system and internal chemistry. The arterial muscles tighten when blood pressure must be raised. For example, when we stand, blood pressure falls as gravity pulls blood into our legs. Pressure receptors in our neck arteries sense this and send signals that cause our hearts to beat faster and pump harder and our arteries to constrict, all of which raise blood pressure enough to keep blood flowing to our brains. Our brains also send signals through the nerves to adjust the muscle tension in the arteries.

Other organs also participate in blood pressure regulation. If we become dehydrated, the volume of blood in our arteries is reduced and pressure drops. Our kidneys have a receptor that senses this and sends a chemical signal to our adrenal glands which secrete substances that cause our kidneys to hold on to salt and water. Our hearts also secrete substances that contribute to salt and water balance.

High blood pressure damages arteries

In the face of high cholesterol, our arteries can become clogged. This happens more quickly when blood pressure is high because the excess pressure stretches and damages the inner lining of the artery, allowing more deposition of cholesterol.

High blood pressure alone is bad enough. When other problems are added to high blood pressure, the risk to the body increases rapidly. Smoking, too, contributes to this damage and can cause the smaller arteries to shrivel up to nothing and can weaken the walls of the large arteries, making them susceptible to rupture if blood pressure gets high enough.

Smoking, lack of exercise, diabetes, and high cholesterol are the major co-morbidities that make the problem of high blood pressure deadly.

Damaged arteries cause serious health risks

Over time, the damage accumulates. Arteries are soon unable to carry the proper amount of blood or respond to the stimuli that let them relax. The organs supplied by the arteries begin to fail due to inadequate oxygen and nutrients and in response to the ravages of high pressure. When the arteries to the brain are affected, strokes can occur but years of minor damage can be a cause of dementia. If the heart arteries are affected, heart failure or a heart attack can happen. Damage to the arteries in the eye can lead to blindness, kidney artery damage can mean the need for dialysis, leg artery problems cause painful walking and damage to the arteries of the penis causes erectile dysfunction.

Early treatment of high blood pressure reduces your health risk

High blood pressure does not cause any symptoms until it is very high or there is damage to some organ system. It has been shown repeatedly that people are completely inaccurate when they "feel" as though their blood pressure is up or down. The only way to determine blood pressure accurately is to measure it. When it's too high, treatment can reduce the risk of damage to the body.