Lowering blood pressure one roadblock at a time

To get James Robbins' high blood pressure under control, the first step was to help him quit smoking.

But to reach that point required a bit of soul searching on Mr. Robbins' part.

He had long known he had high blood pressure. But had managed to ignore the significance of his condition for some years, even trying to game the regular physicals that were required for his work as a commercial diver.

“I’d kind of starve myself and I wouldn’t drink sodas before the physicals,” Mr. Robbins said. “I’d have them do the tests manually, which brings it down a little.”

Medical staff told him his blood pressure was on the high side. But he was finally convinced to get treated by his family – which has a history of hypertension.

“My fiancée pushed me, and I look at my dad,” Mr. Robbins said, adding he recognized some of the same symptoms he witnessed with his father — along with the same stoic attitude that kept him from getting treatment.

Mr. Robbins had smoked since he was in high school, and had tried to quit about a dozen times before going to the Dr. Robert L.M. Hilliard Center for treatment. This time, it seems like the effort is paying off.

“I still have cravings here and there, but it's not worth it,” he said. “I feel a lot more lively. I haven't been sick as much.”

Once the tobacco habit stopped affecting his blood pressure, doctors could do a better job of evaluating and treating him, said Dr. Suhaib Haq, medical director of the Hilliard Center.

“Quitting smoking is definitely the most important factor in controlling your blood pressure,” Dr. Haq said. “We also take a look at diet, with special attention to sodium levels.”

People may not be motivated to change these habits for a long time because they feel fine, Dr. Haq said. Nevertheless, high blood pressure is slowly damaging their  bodies.

“High blood pressure is called the silent killer for a reason,” Dr. Haq said. “You don’t notice the symptoms until it’s too late. It can lead to heart failure and stroke.”

Usually it’s family that motivates a person to seek help with hypertension, he said. With men, it’s usually their wives who finally make it happen. But they need continued support.

“High blood pressure is a lifestyle disease,” Dr. Haq said. “We recommend the DASH diet – it’s a low sodium diet and also helps improve obesity and diabetes.

When patients falter in their efforts to maintain a healthy blood pressure, he said, it’s usually diet-related. “They don't cook their own foods, or they grab food on the go,” he said.

Changing those habits is not easy, but the key is to keep trying. It’s also helpful to regularly self-monitor. Blood pressure cuffs available at grocery stores and pharmacies may not be as precise and those used in doctors' offices, but they can often alert people to follow up with a doctor. Home units are also available, are relatively inexpensive and can save money in the long run, he said.

“It costs you $30, but it could save you a stroke down the road."

Mr. Robbins said he’s changed his attitude about asking for medical help — for hypertension or anything else.

“No matter how embarrassing it is, tell them,” he said. “They're there to help you.”

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