Systemic hypertension is high blood pressure in the arteries that carry blood from your heart to your body’s tissues. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with high blood pressure.

Systemic hypertension is measured with a pressure cuff around your upper arm. The cuff is connected to a blood pressure monitor. The numbers on the monitor can reveal whether your blood pressure is high.

High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, unless the levels are high enough to cause a hypertensive emergency. It can develop due to a range of medical conditions and lifestyle behaviors.

The potential health complications of hypertension can be severe. But you can often prevent or manage high blood pressure by addressing potential underlying causes and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

This article will take a closer look at the causes and treatment of systemic hypertension, as well as the steps you can take to help prevent it.

Systemic hypertension happens when the blood pressure in the arteries that send blood from your heart to the rest of your body — except your lungs — is higher than it should be. High blood pressure in the arteries that carry blood from the right side of your heart to your lungs is called pulmonary hypertension.

Blood pressure is often expressed as a fraction with two numbers. The top number is the systolic pressure and the bottom number is the diastolic pressure.

Systolic pressure is the force of blood against the inner wall of the arteries and is measured while your heart is contracting. Diastolic pressure. This is the force of blood against the artery walls when your heart is resting between beats.

The readings are measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Typical blood pressure is defined by the American Heart Association as a systolic pressure of less than 120 mm Hg and a diastolic pressure of less than 80 mm Hg.

You may hear a healthcare professional refer to this as “120 over 80,” and they may use similar phrasing to tell you what your own blood pressure reading is.

For most adults, blood pressure readings are categorized as follows:

Stage of hypertensionSystolic pressureDiastolic pressure
Healthy range120 mm Hg or lowerAND80 mm Hg or lower
Pre-hypertension120–129 mm HgAND80 mm Hg or lower
Stage 1 hypertension130–139 mm HgOR80–89 mm Hg
Stage 2 hypertension 140 mm Hg or higherOR90 mm Hg or higher
Hypertensive crises
(medical attention is needed)
180 mm Hg or higherOR120 mm Hg or higher

Systemic hypertension usually has no symptoms. It’s why the condition is sometimes called the silent killer. The only way to know that you have hypertension is by having your blood pressure checked.

If hypertension reaches the level of a hypertensive emergency — systolic pressure of 180 mm Hg or higher or a diastolic pressure of 120 mm Hg or higher — the following symptoms may be present:

Some people experience high blood pressure only at a doctor’s appointment but not at other times. This is known as white coat syndrome or white coat hypertension. For these individuals, regular home monitoring of blood pressure is recommended.

Home monitoring is also a good idea for anyone at risk of systemic hypertension, including people with the following risk factors:

Systemic hypertension has many potential causes, including underlying health conditions and environmental or lifestyle factors. Health conditions that may increase the risk of systemic hypertension include:

When an underlying medical condition causes an increase in blood pressure, it’s known as secondary hypertension. Pregnancy can also trigger the onset of high blood pressure, but this usually resolves once the baby is born.

Some of the more common lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase the risk of systemic hypertension include:

  • a high sodium diet
  • alcohol and drug use
  • lack of physical activity
  • smoking
  • insufficient sleep

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Black individuals, particularly males, face a higher risk of hypertension than many other groups of people. This may be due to factors like racism, methods for coping with racism, misinformation about hypertension, limited access to care, socioeconomic status, location, and underlying health concerns.

A diagnosis of hypertension may result in a treatment plan that involves lifestyle changes and medications. If you receive a diagnosis of hypertension, your healthcare professional may suggest lifestyle changes that focus on:

  • a heart-healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, or a whole-food plant-based diet
  • limiting or cutting out foods that are high in salt (sodium)
  • getting at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 or more days per week
  • losing weight if you’re considered overweight
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • limiting alcohol consumption if you drink alcohol
  • getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night

If lifestyle changes don’t reduce your blood pressure enough, your doctor may recommend medication.

A 2019 study suggests that antihypertensive medications are both safe and effective for lowering blood pressure in most people. The primary first-line medications for systemic hypertension include:

According to a 2018 report, treatment decisions for high blood pressure should be based on an individual’s cardiovascular risk profile and personal preferences.

For example, aggressive treatment with medications may cause some unwanted side effects. If this is the case, you may prefer medications with fewer side effects, or you may opt to focus more on exercising or other lifestyle changes.

Because hypertension affects the health and function of your arteries, all the organs and tissues in your body are at risk of complications from poorly controlled high blood pressure.

Hypertension can cause your arteries to become stiffer, weaker, and less effective at handling blood flow properly. Some of the many health complications that can stem from hypertension include:

When should you see a doctor?

Keeping up with your annual checkups is one way to keep track of changes in your blood pressure. But you should also make a point to have your blood pressure checked if you have other conditions, such as high cholesterol or diabetes.

You likely won’t notice symptoms of hypertension. Having other risk factors for high blood pressure should prompt a visit to the doctor and a professional check on your blood pressure.

Can you prevent hypertension?

Hypertension can’t always be prevented, but there are some established strategies to help keep your blood pressure at healthy levels. This include:

Is systemic hypertension hereditary?

Hypertension is a condition that can run in families, meaning that people who live a heart-healthy lifestyle are still at a higher risk for high blood pressure if their parents had hypertension.

However, a 2017 study suggests that modifying certain lifestyle behaviors and other environmental factors (such as secondhand smoke exposure) may reduce the effects of inherited high blood pressure in some people.

Can lifestyle changes cure hypertension?

There is no actual cure for hypertension. Health experts instead use terms such as “manage” or “control” to describe ways of keeping blood pressure in a healthy range.

For some people, healthy lifestyle changes can be enough to lower high blood pressure and keep it in a standard range. As with taking medications to control hypertension, you have to stick with those healthy lifestyle behaviors for them to have a positive effect on your blood pressure. Otherwise, you can expect your blood pressure to rise.

Systemic hypertension is another way to describe high blood pressure, a condition that can develop as the result of an underlying health condition or due to lifestyle choices. You can also genetically inherit high blood pressure.

Focusing on a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a low sodium diet may help reduce your risk of developing systemic hypertension. Specific types of medications can also help control systemic hypertension and manage the risks of complications.