Blood pressure refers to the force exerted by circulating blood on the walls of blood vessels, and constitutes one of the principal vital signs. The term blood pressure generally refers to arterial pressure, i.e., the pressure in the larger arteries, the blood vessels that take blood away from the heart. Arterial pressure is most commonly measured via a sphygmomanometer, which historically used the height of a column of mercury to reflect the circulating pressure. Today blood pressure values are still reported in millimetres of mercury (mmHg), though aneroid and electronic devices do not use mercury.
The systolic arterial pressure is defined as the peak pressure in the arteries, which occurs near the beginning of the cardiac cycle when the ventricles are contracting ; the diastolic arterial pressure is the lowest pressure during the resting phase of the cardiac cycle. The average pressure throughout the cardiac cycle is reported as mean arterial pressure; the pulse pressure reflects the difference between the maximum and minimum pressures measured.
An example of a normal value for a resting, healthy adult human is 115 mmHg systolic and 75 mmHg diastolic (written as 115/75 mmHg, and spoken as "one fifteen over seventy-five"). Arterial blood pressure measurements can have large variations. Blood pressure is not static but undergoes natural variations from one heartbeat to another and throughout the day (in a circadian rhythm); it also changes in response to stress, nutritional factors, drugs, or disease. Hypertension refers to arterial pressure being abnormally high, as opposed to hypotension, when it is abnormally low. Along with body temperature, blood pressure measurements are the most commonly measured physiological parameters.
Arterial hypertension in itself it is not generally an acute problem. But because of its long-term indirect effects (and also as an indicator of other problems) it is a serious worry to physicians diagnosing it.
All levels of arterial pressure put mechanical stress on the arterial walls. Higher pressures increase heart workload and progression of unhealthy tissue growth (atheroma) that develops within the walls of arteries. The higher the pressure, the more stress that is present and the more atheroma tend to progress and the heart muscle tends to thicken, enlarge and become weaker over time.
Persistent hypertension is one of the risk factors for
strokes, heart attacks,
heart failure, arterial aneurysms, and is the leading cause of chronic renal failure. Even moderate elevation of arterial pressure leads to shortened life expectancy. At severely high pressures, mean arterial pressures 50% or more above average, a person can expect to live no more than a few years unless appropriately treated.
In the past, most attention was paid to diastolic pressure; but nowadays it is recognised that both high systolic pressure and high pulse pressure (the numerical difference between systolic and diastolic pressures) are also risk factors. In some cases, it appears that a decrease in excessive diastolic pressure can actually increase risk, due probably to the increased difference between systolic and diastolic pressures (see the article on pulse pressure).
Blood pressure that is too low is known as hypotension. The similarity in pronunciation with hypertension can cause confusion. Hypotension is a medical concern only if it causes signs or symptoms, such as dizziness, fainting, or in extreme cases, shock.
When arterial pressure and blood flow decrease beyond a certain point, the perfusion of the brain becomes critically decreased (i.e., the blood supply is not sufficient), causing lightheadedness, dizziness, weakness or fainting.
However, people who function well, while maintaining low arterial pressures have lower rates of cardiovascular disease events than people with normal arterial pressures.
Sometimes the arterial pressure drops significantly when a patient stands up from sitting. This is known as orthostatic hypotension (postural hypotension); gravity reduces the rate of blood return from the body veins below the heart back to the heart, thus reducing stroke volume and cardiac output.
When people are healthy, the veins below their heart quickly constrict and the heart rate increases to minimize and compensate for the gravity effect. This is carried out involuntarily by the autonomic nervous system. The system usually requires a few seconds to fully adjust and if the compensations are too slow or inadequate, the individual will suffer reduced blood flow to the brain, dizziness and potential blackout. Increases in G-loading, such as routinely experienced by acrobatic jet pilots 'pulling Gs', greatly increases this effect. Repositioning the body perpendicular to gravity largely eliminates the problem.
Other causes of low arterial pressure include:
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