Effects of High Blood Pressure on Your Body

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 15, 2023
4 min read

Why is high blood pressure a big deal? Because it's putting stress on your heart and your arteries, even if you don't feel any different. That added stress can raise your chances for a heart attack or stroke.

Over time, problems in your arteries could cut back on blood flow. And since all of the tissues and organs in your body need blood to work well, that means things like your brain, your kidneys, your eyesight, and your sex life can be affected, too.

By living with healthy habits and taking medication to get or keep your blood pressure down now, you may prevent long-term problems.

It all starts with your arteries. Normally, the vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body have a smooth inner lining. They're strong and flexible enough to push blood through your body.

High blood pressure changes that. The extra force of the blood can damage the cells on the inside walls of your arteries.

If the pressure doesn't let up, it can cause tears in the lining so it's not smooth anymore. That's where fatty bits, called plaque, get caught and build up. Blood can't move as well around these clogs, which can even block arteries. These deposits can also make the walls stiff so it's harder to move the blood.

This damage can make the artery wall stretch and bulge out like a balloon. The bump is called an aneurysm. It can break open and bleed.

Your heart is a muscle, and it needs blood, too. When its supply lines can't deliver enough, you could have:

To push blood through stiff or clogged arteries, your heart has to work harder. An overworked heart can become larger than normal. Then the walls of the heart muscle lose strength and can't pump blood well. This could lead to a heart attack or heart failure. The chances are greater if you already have heart problems.

High blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke. When an artery in your brain tears, leaks, or gets clogged, it can stop blood from getting to brain cells. Depending on what part of your brain loses blood and what it does, you could have problems with language, vision, movement, or anything else your brain controls. It could be temporary if the blood flow is restored, or the damage may be permanent if the cells die.

A lessened blood supply to the brain can also keep you from thinking clearly and remembering. It can cause a condition called vascular dementia.

About 1 in 5 people with high blood pressure also have kidney disease. Your kidneys rely on a network of tiny blood vessels to bring them oxygen and nutrients and to filter waste from your body. When the vessels get clogged, your kidneys can't do their job.

Healthy kidneys play a role in keeping your blood pressure in check, too, so when they're damaged, your blood pressure could go up, which then causes more kidney trouble, in an ongoing loop. This could lead to kidney failure.

Long-term high blood pressure can squeeze off blood flow and damage the small blood vessels in your eyes. Fluid may build up under your retina, the part of your eye where images focus. These things can lead to problems including blurry, distorted, and lost vision.

You could also lose your sight when your optic nerve doesn't get enough blood.

Less blood getting to your sexual organs can cause erectile dysfunction in men and a lower sex drive for women.

Narrow and blocked arteries in the lower part of your body -- especially your legs -- can cause pain and cramping. Because it's affecting blood vessels that aren't near your heart, your doctor may call this peripheral artery disease (PAD). It can make muscles in your legs and hips sore and tired when you walk or climb stairs.

High blood pressure may make you pee out too much calcium. If your body pulls calcium from your bones to make up for that, you could get osteoporosis. Older women with high blood pressure are more likely to have trouble with weak bones that break easily.

About a third to half of people with high blood pressure also have this condition, a kind of interrupted breathing while you sleep. High blood pressure can trigger it or make it worse. Your odds are higher if you have a hard time controlling your blood pressure. Unfortunately, the poor rest that comes from sleep apnea can, in turn, raise your blood pressure.