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Low Blood Pressure (Hypotension) Symptoms and Treatments

How does blood pressure work? Is low blood pressure dangerous?

During relaxation of the heart (diastole) the left ventricle of the heart fills with blood returning from the lungs. The left ventricle then contracts and pumps blood into the arteries (systole). The blood pressure in the arteries during contraction of the ventricle (systolic pressure) is higher because blood is being actively ejected into the arteries. It is lower during relaxation of the ventricle (diastolic pressure) when no blood is being ejected into the arteries. The pulse we feel when we place our fingers over an artery is caused by the contraction of the left ventricle and the ejection of blood.

Blood pressure is determined by two factors: 1) The amount of blood pumped by the left ventricle of the heart into the arteries, and 2) the resistance to the flow of blood caused by the walls of the arterioles (smaller arteries).

Generally, blood pressure tends to be higher if more blood is pumped into the arteries or if the arterioles are narrow and/or stiff. Narrow and/or stiff arterioles, by resisting the flow of blood, increase blood pressure. Arterioles may become narrower when the muscles surrounding them contract. Arterioles may become stiff and narrow when older patients develop atherosclerosis.

Blood pressure tends to be lower if less blood is being pumped into the arteries or if the arterioles are larger and more flexible and, therefore, have less resistance to the flow of blood.

The body has mechanisms to alter or maintain blood pressure and blood flow. There are sensors that sense blood pressure in the walls of the arteries and send signals to the heart, the arterioles, the veins, and the kidneys that cause them to make changes that lower or increase blood pressure.

There are several ways in which blood pressure can be adjusted; by adjusting the amount of blood pumped by the heart into the arteries (cardiac output), the amount of blood contained in the veins, the arteriolar resistance, and the volume of blood.

  • The heart can speed up and contract more frequently and it can eject more blood with each contraction (more forcefully). Both of these responses increase the flow of blood into the arteries and increase blood pressure.
  • The veins can expand and narrow. When veins expand, more blood can be stored in the veins and less blood returns to the heart for pumping into the arteries. As a result, the heart pumps less blood, and blood pressure is lower. On the other hand, when veins narrow, less blood is stored in the veins, more blood returns to the heart for pumping into the arteries, and blood pressure is higher.
  • The arterioles can expand and narrow. Expanded arterioles create less resistance to the flow of blood and decrease blood pressure, while narrowed arterioles create more resistance and raise blood pressure.
  • The kidney can respond to changes in blood pressure by increasing or decreasing the amount of urine that is produced. Urine is primarily water that is removed from the blood. When the kidney makes more urine, the amount (volume) of blood that fills the arteries and veins decreases, and this lowers blood pressure. If the kidneys make less urine, the amount of blood that fills the arteries and veins increases and this increases blood pressure. Compared with the other mechanisms for adjusting blood pressure, changes in the production of urine affect blood pressure slowly over hours and days. (The other mechanisms are effective in seconds.)

For example, low blood volume due to bleeding (such as a bleeding ulcer in the stomach or from a severe laceration from an injury) can cause low blood pressure. The body quickly responds to the low blood volume and pressure by the following adjustments which all increase blood pressure:

The heart rate increases and the forcefulness of the heart's contractions increase, pumping more blood through the heart.

  • Veins narrow to return more blood to the heart for pumping.
  • Blood flow to the kidneys decreases to reduce the formation of urine and thereby increases the volume of blood in the arteries and veins.
  • Arterioles narrow to increase resistance to blood flow.
  • These adaptive responses will keep the blood pressure in the normal range unless blood loss becomes so severe that the responses are overwhelmed.

Is blood pressure bad for your health?

People who have lower blood pressures have a lower risk of stroke, kidney disease, and heart disease.

Athletes, people who exercise regularly, people who maintain ideal body weight, and nonsmokers tend to have lower blood pressures. Low blood pressure is desirable as long as it is not low enough to cause symptoms and damage to the organs in the body.

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Reviewed on 9/8/2017
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