A key problem with high blood pressure (or hypertension) is that, generally, there are no symptoms or visible signs, which is why it is called ‘the silent killer’. However, if left untreated, high blood pressure causes a lot of harm to various parts of your body. In fact, deaths have occurred because of untreated hypertension.
Here are some of the common ways in which hypertension damages your body:
The heart is the organ that pumps blood to the body. High blood pressure makes the heart work extra hard to pump blood properly. As a result, some parts of the heart, the left ventricle in particular, become overworked and thick (known as left ventricular hypertrophy). (1)
2. Blood vessels:
High blood pressure disrupts the inner lining of your blood vessels, particularly the arteries. Over time, the affected artery becomes weak, narrow, and stiff, and blood flow to whatever part it is supplying to reduces.
If an artery supplying blood to the heart (coronary artery) gets too narrow or completely blocked, then it poses a risk of angina or heart attack. (2) If the arteries supplying blood to a part of your arms and legs are narrowed/blocked, you might feel frequent cramps, pain, and tiredness (known as peripheral artery disease). Sometimes, weakened arteries give up under the high pressure and swell, leading to a large bulge called an aneurysm, which is likely to burst.
When blood flow to a specific part of the brain is too low, a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a full-blown stroke can occur. People with hypertension also tend to have more frequent blood clots in the brain; these clots further increase the risks of TIAs and stroke. Reduced blood flow to the brain can also lead to mild cognitive impairment (or dementia in its more severe form). (2)
High blood pressure is one of the most common causes of kidney failure and glomerulosclerosis, which is the scarring of a part of the kidney. These problems impair the ability of the kidneys to filter blood normally and could lead to fluid accumulation inside the body. (3)
5. Eyes and vision:
Long-term hypertension also damages the blood vessels and nerves in your eyes, leading to conditions known as retinopathy, choroidopathy, and optic neuropathy. In these conditions, there is bleeding in the eye as well as blurry vision or complete vision loss. The main artery and vein of the retina can get blocked, thereby affecting vision. (4)
5. Sexual dysfunction:
Problems in normal sexual functioning are common—but not commonly discussed—a complication of hypertension. (5) In men, blood flow to the penis can become restricted in chronic hypertension, which can cause problems with getting an erection. In women, chronic hypertension causes reduced blood flow to the vagina, which may decrease arousal and cause vaginal dryness. In fact, hypertension-related sexual dysfunction is more frequent in women than in men.
It is therefore crucial that you get your blood pressure checked regularly, especially if someone in your family has high blood pressure. A lot of these complications can be avoided by keeping the blood pressure under control. Remember, lowering your blood pressure even by 10 mmHg reduces your risk of getting these diseases by 20%. (2)
- Brandt MC, Mahfoud F, Reda S, Schirmer SH, Erdmann E, Böhm M, et al. Renal sympathetic denervation reduces left ventricular hypertrophy and improves cardiac function in patients with resistant hypertension. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2012;59(10):901-9.
- Ettehad D, Emdin CA, Kiran A, Anderson SG, Callender T, Emberson J, et al. Blood pressure lowering for the prevention of cardiovascular disease and death: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet. 2016;387(10022):957-67.
- Udani S, Lazich I, Bakris GL. Epidemiology of hypertensive kidney disease. Nature Reviews Nephrology. 2011;7(1):11.
- Fraser‐Bell S, Symes R, Vaze A. Hypertensive eye disease: a review. Clinical & experimental ophthalmology. 2017;45(1):45-53.