High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) | MedStar Health
Dr. Michelle Magee takes the blood pressure reading for a male patient in a clinical setting.

The dangers of this potential ‘silent killer’

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is blood pressure that’s consistently too high. People usually don’t notice any symptoms of high blood pressure. That’s one reason it’s known as “the silent killer.”

For more than 60 years, the expert heart doctors in our cardiology program have diagnosed high blood pressure in patients and helped them manage the disease to reduce their risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious complications.

What do blood pressure readings mean?

Blood pressure consists of two numbers, one listed over the other. The top number, systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure of blood against the walls of your arteries when the heart beats. The bottom number, diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure of blood against the walls of your arteries between heartbeats. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury, or mmHg.

Systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings give your doctor information about the strain on your arteries. For healthy people with no additional medical concerns, 120/80 mmHg or lower is considered a normal blood pressure. If your blood pressure is consistently either slightly higher or much higher than 120/80, you likely have hypertension.

Extremely high blood pressure is called a hypertensive crisis and requires emergency care. If you test your blood pressure at home and get results higher than 180/120 mmHg, wait about five minutes and test yourself again. If your second results are this high or higher, get medical help right away.

What causes high blood pressure?

There may be no identifiable cause of your high blood pressure. We call this primary or essential hypertension. If you have primary hypertension, your body can’t self-regulate to a normal blood pressure range.

High blood pressure caused by another medical condition is called secondary hypertension. Stenosis, or narrowing, of the arteries in the kidneys and congenital heart diseases often can cause high blood pressure, as well as arteriosclerosis 

Lifestyle factors also can increase your risk for high blood pressure, including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Feeling anxious or stressed
  • Getting too much salt in your diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Using tobacco
Medical illustration of the heart


Regular blood pressure tests help you and your doctor know if your readings are normal or too high.


Lifestyle modifications, such as losing weight and eating a healthy diet, can help lower blood pressure. If these changes aren’t enough to treat your high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend one or more advanced care options.

Ask MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute

Have general questions for our heart and vascular program? Email us at AskMHVI@medstar.net. If you have clinically-specific questions, please contact your physician’s office.