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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts

Richard E. Klabunde, PhD


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Click here for information on Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts, 2nd edition, a textbook published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (2011)

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Click here for information on Normal and Abnormal Blood Pressure, a textbook published by Richard E. Klabunde (2013)

Hypertension - Introduction

High blood pressure, termed "hypertension," is a condition that afflicts almost 1 billion people worldwide and is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. More than 20% of Americans are hypertensive, and one-third of these Americans are not even aware they are hypertensive. Therefore, this disease is sometimes called the "silent killer." This disease is usually asymptomatic until the damaging effects of hypertension (such as stroke, myocardial infarction, renal dysfunction, visual problems, etc.) are observed. Hypertension is a major risk factor for coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction ("heart attacks") and stroke.

Definition of Hypertension

Hypertensive is defined as an abnormal elevation in diastolic pressure and/or systolic pressure; mean arterial pressure is also elevated in hypertension, but it is not usually measured in people. In past years, the diastolic value was emphasized in assessing hypertension.  However, elevations in systolic pressure ("systolic hypertension") are also associated with increased incidence of coronary and cerebrovascular disease (e.g., stroke). Therefore, we now recognize that both systolic and diastolic pressure values are important to note. According to the latest U.S. national guidelines (JNC 7 Report)), the following represents different stages of hypertension:

Classification Systolic
Normal <120 <80
Prehypertension 120-139 80-89
Stage 1 140-159 90-99
Stage 2 >160 >100

Two Classes of Hypertension

In 90-95% of patients presenting with hypertension, the cause is unknown.  This condition is called primary (or essential) hypertension.  The remaining 5-10% of hypertensive patients have hypertension that results secondarily from renal disease, endocrine disorders, or other identifiable causes. This form of hypertension is called secondary hypertension.

Hemodynamic Basis of Hypertension

Regardless of the origin of hypertension, the actual increase in arterial blood pressure is caused by either an increase in systemic vascular resistance (SVR) or an increase in cardiac output (CO). The former is determined by the vascular tone (i.e., state of constriction) of systemic resistance vessels, whereas the latter is determined by heart rate and stroke volume.  Therefore, in order to understand how arterial blood pressure can become elevated, it is necessary to understand the mechanisms that regulate both SVR and CO.

Treatment of Hypertension

Most people with hypertension are treated with antihypertensive medications. In most forms of hypertension, the hypertensive state is maintained by an elevation in blood volume, which in turn increases cardiac output by the Frank-Starling relationshipDiuretic drugs, which enhance the removal of sodium and water by the kidneys and thereby decrease blood volume, are very effective in the treatment of hypertension. Hypertension is also commonly treated with drugs that decrease cardiac output. These cardioinhibitory drugs either block beta-adrenoceptors on the heart (i.e., beta-blockers) or L-type calcium channels (i.e., calcium-channel blockers), which decreases cardiac output by decreasing heart rate and contractility (inotropy). Vasodilator drugs, which decrease systemic vascular resistance, are also used to treat hypertension. Included in these drugs are alpha-adrenoceptor antagonists (alpha-blockers), direct-acting vasodilators, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers. A complete list of drugs used to treat hypertension can be found by clicking here.

Go to:  primary hypertension

RK Revised 03/29/2007

DISCLAIMER: These materials are for educational purposes only, and are not a source of medical decision-making advice.