Have you been told you have high blood pressure? Doctors recognize that untreated hypertension can increase your chance of developing heart disease, kidney damage or stroke. Consequently, you should take steps to keep your blood pressure under control. First, however, you should find out what it actually is so you will know if it is truly elevated.
Is It White Coat Hypertension?
Q. I might have to go on a blood pressure-lowering medication, but I am very reluctant to do so. I exercise regularly at the gym, lifting weights and doing cardio five days a week for an hour. I also walk in the evenings when weather permits. My diet is very healthy and at 5’7” I weigh between 115 and 117 lbs.
Yet when I see a doctor my blood pressure jumps to 150/90. Could it just be “white coat syndrome?” The doctors seem reluctant even to consider this. They want to hand me medications right away, regardless of any side effects. If the subject comes up on my next visit, I’d like to know which medicines would have the least objectionable side effects.
What Is White Coat Hypertension?
A. It is certainly possible that you have white coat hypertension, a condition in which blood pressure soars in the doctor’s office but is normal at other times. Presumably this is due to anxiety around the interaction. Stress can contribute to high readings.
Blood pressure must be measured correctly both in the doctor’s office as well as at home. It is harder than you might think. Keep your feet on the floor and your back supported. Your arm should rest on a horizontal surface at heart height. Do not talk during the measurement. Sometimes the nurse or medical assistant will chat with you to put you at ease, but talking can mess up the results.
Other people have had to deal with a similar problem.
Handling White Coat Hypertension:
Q. My blood pressure at home is normal without medication (110/68). I take it with a BP machine checked by a cardiologist.
In a medical setting, it’s sky high and doctors get upset. I have been prescribed medication for blood pressure, but it doesn’t keep my pressure down at the doctor’s office. No heart or artery disease has been found.
I am 65 and this has been happening since I was in my early 30s. At the doctor’s office I feel panic. Any suggestions?
A. You describe “white coat hypertension” perfectly. Many people react as you do with panic and soaring blood pressure in a medical setting. Stress leading to panic can really boost the pressure in your arteries.
Medical Consensus Advisory
Blood pressure control is essential to reduce your risk of kidney, heart and brain problems. It takes more than one high reading to diagnose hypertension, and those measurements must be conducted correctly. So-called white coat hypertension, with readings elevated in the clinic but not at home, is common. Doctors don't agree on how aggressively such patients should be medicated.
Keeping a diary of your home readings may help. You will find more information on white coat hypertension and non-drug approaches in our Guide to Blood Pressure Treatment.
When Home and Office Blood Pressure Readings Clash:
Doctors have long debated how vigorously white coat hypertension should be treated. Some recognize that during much of a normal day, the patient’s blood pressure is quite normal, and don’t worry too much about the elevation that shows up in medical settings (Current Cardiology Reports, March 8, 2018).
Others argue that vascular pressure rising under stress puts the patient at risk. They prefer to treat with enough medication to keep blood pressure from becoming too high even in the doctor’s office. A meta-analysis of 23 long-term studies found that if this condition goes untreated, it can raise the risk of heart disease and premature death (Journal of Hypertension, April 2017).
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A study that followed 6,458 people for more than eight years found that untreated white coat hypertension carries some risk, but blood pressure that is high both at home and in the office is the most dangerous (Stergiou et al, Hypertension, April 2014).
You will find some helpful hints in our review on treating hypertension. Besides antihypertensive medications, you can learn to slow your breathing, meditate, exercise regularly and follow a DASH diet. Any of these approaches can help you reduce your blood pressure and your risk of a heart attack.
To learn more about proper measurement technique, white coat hypertension and strategies for controlling hypertension, you may wish to consult our Guide to Blood Pressure Treatment.
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. Read Terry's Full Bio.
Blood Pressure Treatment
Download these eight pages on the pros and cons of the various medicines used to lower blood pressure. Details on non-drug approaches to blood pressure control such as diet, supplements and special foods.
Abolbashari M, "White coat hypertension and cardiovascular diseases: Innocent or guilty." Current Cardiology Reports, March 8, 2018. DOI: 10.1007/s11886-018-0964-0
Huang Y et al, "White-coat hypertension is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and total mortality." Journal of Hypertension, April 2017. DOI: 10.1097/HJH.0000000000001226
Stergiou GS et al, "Prognosis of white-coat and masked hypertension: International Database of HOme blood pressure in relation to Cardiovascular Outcome." Hypertension, April 2014. DOI: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.113.02741
Niiranen TJ et al, "Optimal number of days for home blood pressure measurement." American Journal of Hypertension, May 2015. DOI: 10.1093/ajh/hpu216
Sheppard JP et al, "Predictors of the home-clinic blood pressure difference: A systematic review and meta-analysis." American Journal of Hypertension, May, 2016. DOI: 10.1093/ajh/hpv157
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