Medical terminology can be confusing. And some health professionals aren’t the best at putting things into layman’s terms. If you have problems with blood pressure or are an at-risk individual, this article will explain the differences between hypotension and hypertension, causes of each, symptoms, and how to manage these conditions.
You’ll see that these two terms represent two opposite ends of the blood pressure spectrum, with both having significant implications for overall health.
Table of Contents
How to Read Blood Pressure Readings
Before getting into the difference between hypotension and hypertension, it’s important to know what the numbers mean when taking your blood pressure.
You go to the doctor’s office, they put a cuff on your arm, pump it full of air and squeeze the heck out of your arm, then read off two numbers. Do you know what these numbers really mean? If so, great! If not, let me explain.
Systolic Blood Pressure
Systolic blood pressure is the first or upper number in a blood pressure reading. For example, if your blood pressure is 142/90, then the systolic blood pressure is 142 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury).
Your systolic blood pressure number is the amount of force used to pump blood out of your heart.
It’s important to know that systolic blood pressure does tend to increase as we age. This is the result of arteries becoming stiffer and plaque build-up over time.
A normal systolic blood pressure is considered a number less than 120 millimeters of mercury.
Diastolic Blood Pressure
Diastolic blood pressure is the second or bottom number in a blood pressure reading. For example, if your blood pressure is 142/90, then the diastolic blood pressure is 90 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury).
Your diastolic blood pressure number is the amount of forced used when your heart is resting between beats.
A normal diastolic blood pressure is considered a number less than 80 millimeters of mercury.
Hypotension: When Blood Pressure Takes a Dip
Hypotension, commonly referred to as low blood pressure, occurs when the force of blood against the walls of the arteries is too low to circulate oxygen and nutrients effectively throughout the body. This condition often results in inadequate blood flow to vital organs.
Hypotension is considered any blood pressure lower than 90 over 60 mm Hg. Some people normally have low blood pressure, like runners and other athletes for example. Others may have sudden drops in blood pressure that are abnormal.
Symptoms of Hypotension
When someone has low blood pressure they may experience any of the following symptoms:
- blurry vision or other vision changes
- heart palpitations or feeling your heart is beating too fast or hard
- fainting (also called syncope- pronounced sing-kuh-pee)
Causes of Hypotension
Several factors can contribute to hypotension, including dehydration, certain medications, issues with adrenal glands, large losses of blood, genetics, and underlying medical conditions like heart problems and diabetes.
Hypotension can also occur when you sit up from a lying position or when you stand from a lying position too quickly. This is called orthostatic hypotension. Additionally, it can occur after eating a meal, which is referred to as postprandial hypotension.
Older adults are more likely to suffer from orthostatic and postprandial hypotension.
When To Be Concerned With Hypotension
A normal blood pressure reading of 120 over 80 is normal. When blood pressure is lower than 90 over 60 mm Hg, this is hypotension.
Hypotension can lead to stroke or heart attack if it continues without treatment. This is because your heart, brain, and other organs are being deprived of oxygen and blood flow.
If you are not having symptoms of low blood pressure, you may not need treatment. However, if you suspect that you have orthostatic or postprandial hypotension, you should let your doctor know.
Hypertension: The Silent Threat
Then there is the other end of the blood pressure spectrum, hypertension. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, occurs when too much force is used to pump blood through arteries.
Hypertension poses an entirely different set of challenges. If hypertension is not treated, it can lead to damage over time. Unlike hypotension, hypertension is often asymptomatic in its early stages, which means there are no symptoms! That is why it is sometimes referred to as the “silent killer.” If left untreated, it can result in severe health issues such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney damage.
Hypertension is considered any blood pressure above 120 over 80 mm Hg. Continue reading to see the different stages of blood pressure.
Related article: Common Blood Pressure Questions and Answers (Nutrition Edition)
Symptoms of Hypertension
While early onset hypertension usually does not have any symptoms, you may still notice subtle (or even severe) changes, including:
- chest pain
- blurry vision or other vision changes
- nausea with or without vomiting
- difficulty breathing
- nose bleeds
For some individuals, these symptoms can be seen when blood pressures is even slightly elevated above normal. Being sensitive to any of these changes and NOT brushing them off can keep your health in check.
Causes of Hypertension
Lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, stress, advanced age, and genetics can contribute to the development of hypertension.
Some of these causes (stress for example) can lead to temporary spikes in blood pressure. Others may lead to chronic high blood pressure that needs medical attention or possible changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Even temporary spikes can be a warning sign. Mention this to your doctor ASAP.
When To Be Concerned With Hypertension
According to the American Heart Association, there are difference stages of blood pressure. Knowing when blood pressure is too high can help you determine how serious it is. Below is a picture of the difference stages of blood pressure.
If your blood pressure is ever elevated above 180 over 120 then PLEASE call 9-1-1 or have someone take you to the emergency room. This level of hypertension can easily lead to a stroke and cause irreversible brain damage. When this happens, you may also have symptoms such as chest pain, headache, vision changes, or numbness.
Key Differences at a Glance
Hypotension and hypertension have a few clear differences:
- Blood Pressure Range:
- Hypotension: Systolic pressure below 90 mm Hg and diastolic pressure below 60 mm Hg.
- Hypertension: Systolic pressure consistently at or above 130 mm Hg, or diastolic pressure at or above 80 mm Hg.
- Hypotension: Dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, and fainting.
- Hypertension: Often asymptomatic, but may have vision changes, headache, nausea, chest pain.
- Hypotension: Dehydration, medications, hormonal imbalances, genetics, heart problems.
- Hypertension: Poor diet, advanced age, lack of exercise, obesity, stress, genetics.
Managing and Preventing Hypotension and Hypertension
Managing and preventing these conditions is so important to overall health as we age. Each condition requires different approaches:
- Hypotension: Increasing fluid intake, adjusting medications if needed, taking salt tablets, consuming a balanced diet, avoiding sudden position changes, using compression stockings, and addressing underlying medical conditions.
- Hypertension: Adopting a heart-healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress, limiting salt intake, and taking prescribed medications when necessary.
As mentioned, if you have low blood pressure, salt tablets may need to be taken to help raise blood pressure. But following an overall balanced diet that includes an adequate amount of sodium will also help maintain blood pressure levels.
>>For tips on how to manage high blood pressure, read Hypertension Self-Care: Your Ultimate Plan For Lowering Blood Pressure at Home.
>>And for some easy low sodium recipes, visit the Recipes page!
Both high and low blood pressure can have severe outcomes if nothing is done to treat it.
Yes. When a person with high blood pressure stands up quickly from a seated or lying down position, their blood pressure might drop dangerously low. This episode of low blood pressure is called orthostatic hypotension. It occurs in about 10% of individuals with high blood pressure.
What is the difference between hypotension and hypertension? Well, I hope I’ve explain the difference clearly enough.
Hypotension is LOW blood pressure and hypertension is HIGH blood pressure. Having to consistently live with either condition can be worrisome, especially considering the symptoms and the impact on your daily life if conditions worsen.
Understanding the distinction between hypotension and hypertension is crucial. While hypotension may cause immediate symptoms, hypertension’s silent nature underlines the importance of getting regular health checkups and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Blood pressure issues are usually a sign of something deeper. By focusing on staying informed and proactive, and following a lifelong healthy diet and lifestyle, you can help prevent hypotension and hypertension in your life. Remember, knowledge is power, and the choices we make today can significantly impact our tomorrows.
For information on following a low sodium diet for hypertension, check out Low Sodium Grocery List for a Heart-Healthy Diet (Free PDF), Mediterranean Diet For Beginners (Get Started Today!), or Common Blood Pressure Questions and Answers (Nutrition Edition).
Kiran Campbell is a registered dietitian and entrepreneur with 14 years of experience. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a proud member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Cardiovascular Health and Well-being Dietetics Practice Group. Kiran proudly presents and promotes the most up-to-date, science-based nutrition information on all things heart-related. She aims to serve not only individuals with heart disease, but also those wanting to protect against it. Learn more about Kiran by visiting her About Page.