Hypertension is a common diseases and is defined as persistently elevated arterial blood pressure of >= 140/90 mm Hg. Most of patients belong to essential hypertension and a small percentage belong to secondary hypertension for which the most common causes include renal dysfunction resulting from severe chronic kidney disease (CKD) or renovascular disease. Besides, certain drugs or other products (Table 3-1), either directly or indirectly, can cause hypertension or exacerbate hypertension by increase BP.

Table 3-1 Secondary Causes for Hypertesnion

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Classification of Hypertension

  • Normal: Systolic lower than 120 mm Hg, diastolic lower than 80 mm Hg
  • Prehypertension: Systolic 120-139 mm Hg, diastolic 80-89 mm Hg
  • Stage 1: Systolic 140-159 mm Hg, diastolic 90-99 mm Hg
  • Stage 2: Systolic 160 mm Hg or greater, diastolic 100 mm Hg or greater

Hypertension Crisis: These are clinical situations where BP values are very elevated, typically >180/120 mm Hg. They are categorized as either hypertensive emergency or hypertensive urgency. The former are extreme elevations in BP that are accompanied by acute or processing target-organ damage. The latter are high elevations in BP without acute or progressing target-organ injury. Prehypertension is not considered a disease category but identifies patients whose BP is likely to increase into the classification of hypertension in the future.

Cardiovascular Risk and Blood Pressure

Hypertension must be treated and the reason why is that hypertension is a major cardiovascular risk factor and there indeed is a causal relationship between hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. Also, epidemiologic data demonstrate a strong correlation between BP and CV morbidity and mortality. (Starting at a BP of 115/75 mm Hg, risk of CV disease doubles with every 20/10 mm Hg increase.) Even patients with prehypertension have an increased risk of CV disease. Because hypertension and CV morbidity/mortality has a casual relationship, treating patients with hypertension with antihypertensive drug therapy provides significant clinical benefits.


To further discuss the pathophysiology, we first need to know the mathematic formula to estimate arterial BP. According to the physic law, steady flow (Q) through a closed hydraulic circuit is directly related to the pressure gradient across the circuit (Pin – Pout), and inversely related to the resistance to flow (R) through the circuit. So Q=(Pin – Pout)/R. In the cardiovascular system, Q is cardiac output (CO), Pin is mean arterial pressure (MAP) and Pout is right atrial pressure (RAP), whereas resistance to flow (R) is total peripheral resistance (TPR). So CO=(MAP – RAP)/TPR. Because in normal conditions RAP approaches zero mm Hg, so CO=MAP/TPR and after we make a rearrange we finally get the formula of MAP=CO * TPR. Note that in some pathophysiology status RAP increases significantly and cannot be removed from the formula above.

After the discuss above, the two determinants for MAP is the cardiac output (CO) and the total peripheral resistance (TPR). If we distinguish MAP to systolic BP (SBP) and diastolic BP (DPB), CO is the major determinant of SBP, whereas TPR largely determines DBP. So factors that elevate CO or TPR can elevate BP. We category these factors into 1.humoral; 2.neuronal; 3.peripheral autoregulation; and 4.disturbances in sodium, calcium, and natriuretic hormone.

Humoral Mechanisms


RAAS stands for the rennin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, which is a complex endogenous system that play a range of functions including the regulation of arterial pressure. The RAAS regulars sodium, potassium, blood volume, and most important the vascular tone. Because the total periphery resistance (TPR) is primarily generated by arterioles, so elevated TPR could be a result of activation of RAAS – the angiotensin II (angII). For the detail discussion of TPR please refer to the threads of http://www.tomhsiung.com/wordpress/2015/06/flow-resistance-of-vessels-in-series-and-vessels-in-parallel/ and http://www.tomhsiung.com/wordpress/2015/07/vascular-resistances-and-compliance-map-and-pulse-pressure/, respectively, by Tom Hsiung. First, angII increase the vascular tone, including arterioles. Second, angII induced increased aldosterone synthesis and secretion sodium and water retention, which increase the blood volume. Increased blood volume and TPR eventually result in elevation of BP.


Vasopressin is a polypeptide hormone, also known as antidiuretic hormone/ADH, which plays an important role in extracellular fluid homeostasis (blood volume/plasma volume). Vasopressin acts on collecting ducts in the kidneys to decrease renal excretion of water. This is the most important and wide-known function of vasopressin. However, vasopressin is also a potent arteriolar vasoconstrictor.

Natriuretic Hormone

Natriuretic hormones inhibits sodium and potassium-ATPase and thus interferes with sodium transport across cell membranes. Natriuretic hormone theoretically could increase urinary exertion of sodium and water. However, this hormone might block the active transport of sodium out of arteriolar smooth muscle cells. The increased intracellular sodium concentration concentration ultimately would increase vascular tone and BP.

Insulin Resistance and Hyperinsulinemia

Hypothetically, increased insulin concentrations may lead to hypertension because of increased renal sodium retention and enhanced sympathetic nervous system activity. Moreover, insulin has growth hormone-like actions that can induce hypertrophy of vascular smooth muscle cells. Insulin also may elevated BP by increasing intracellular calcium, which lead to increased vascular resistance. The exact mechanism by which insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia occur in hypertension is unknown. However, this association is strong because many of the criteria used to define this population (i.e., elevated BP, abdominal obesity, high, triglycerides, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and elevated fasting glucose) are often present in patients with hypertension.

Circulating Catecholamines

It is easy to understand the causal relationship between elevated levels of circulating catecholamines and the hypertension, from the perspective of MAP = CO * TPR.

Neuronal Regulation

Synaptic receptors, baroreceptor reflex system, and CNS are involved in the regulation of vascular resistances, cardiac outputs.

Central and autonomic nervous system are intricately involved in the regulation of arterial BP. Many receptors that either enhance or inhibit norepinephrine release are located on the presynaptic surface of sympathetic terminals. The alpha and beta presynaptic receptors play a role in negative and positive feedback to the norepinephrine-containing vesicles, respectively. Stimulation presynaptic alpha-receptors (α2) exerted a negative inhibition on norepinephrine release. Stimulation of presynaptic beta-receptors facilitates norepinephrine release.

Sympathetic neuronal fibers located on the surface of effector cells innervate the alpha- and beta-receptors. Stimulation of postsynaptic alpha-receptors (α1) on arterioles and venues results in vasoconstriction. There are two types of postsynaptic beta-receptors, β1 and β2. Both are present in all tissues innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. However, in some tissues β1-receptors predominate (e.g., heart), and in other tissues β2-receptors predominate (e.g., bronchioles). Stimulation of β1-receptors in the heart results in an increase in heart rate, and the force of contraction (so cardiac output is increased), whereas stimulation of β2-receptors in the arterioles and venues causes vasodilation.

So after the discussion of the two paragraph above, we know that the disturbance of the function of presynaptic and/or postsynaptic receptors would result the imbalance of autonomic nervous system.

Same with the autonomic nervous system but from a different aspect (above is output of autonomic nervous system and now it’s the input of nervous system),  the baroreceptor reflex system is the major negative feedback mechanism the controls sympathetic activity. Baroreceptors are nerve endings lying in the walls of large arteries, especially in the carotid arteries and aortic arch. Changes in arterial BP rapid activate baroreceptors that then transmit impulses to the brain stem through the ninth cranial nerve and vagus nerve. In this reflex system, a decrease in arterial BP stimulates baroreceptors, causing reflex vasoconstriction and increased heart rate and force of cardiac contraction. Also the periphery vascular tone increase too (TPR).

Stimulation of certain areas within the central nervous system can either increase or decrease BP. I think this mechanism must be rather complex, which involves with neurology. If we have time in future, I will take a look at the neurology.

OK. The purpose of the neuronal mechanisms is to regulate BP and maintain homeostasis. Pathologic disturbances in neuronal systems could chronically elevate BP. These systems are physiologically interrelated. A defect in one component may alter normal function in another. Therefore, cumulative abnormalities may explain the development of essential hypertension.

Peripheral/Local Mechanisms (including autoregulatory, etc.) 

Abnormalities in renal or tissue autoregulatory systems, which is just one of several local vascular regulatory mechanisms of human, could cause hypertension. Recall the formula that MAP = CO * TPR. Similarly, the disorders of local vascular regulatory .For detail information of local vascular regulatory mechanisms please refer to the thread of http://www.tomhsiung.com/wordpress/2015/07/arteriolar-tone-and-its-regulation-local-mechanisms/ by Tom Hsiung.


Epidemiologic and clinical data have associated excess sodium intake with hypertension. Population-based studies indicate that high-sodium diets are associated with a high prevalence of stroke and hypertension. Conversely, low-sodium diets are associated with a lower prevalence of hypertension. For the perspective of pathophysiology, more sodium, more water. We will discuss this phenomenon in threads that discuss the kidney.

Altered calcium homeostasis also may play an important role in the pathogenesis of hypertension. A lack of dietary calcium hypothetically can disturb the balance between intracellular and extracellular calcium, resulting in an increased intracellular calcium concentration. This imbalance can alter vascular smooth muscle function by increasing PVR (peripheral vascular resistance). Some studies have shown that dietary calcium supplementation results in a modest BP reduction for patients with hypertension.

The role of potassium fluctuations is also inadequately understood. Potassium depletion may increase PVR, but the clinical significance of small serum potassium concentration changes is unclear. Furthermore, data demonstrating reduced CV risk with dietary potassium supplementation are very limited.