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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

for whoever can't sleep at 2 a.m. because their blood pressure is freaking them out

I really hadn't given a lot of thought until this last week to how experienced I am with monitoring blood pressure compared to a medical professional on the other end of a telephone call, like a nurse or a pharmacist. They are good people and undoubtedly well trained, and particularly wonderful to talk to when we are scared, but this week I was privy to a family member adapting to a new blood pressure med and grew very concerned about the 3 big M's going out of control- misinformation, misunderstanding, and medical mistakes.

Medical pix give me anxiety, so I'm going to put funny pix in this post. They all click to original source.


I'm sure this is a common scenario- a newbie takes a blood pressure reading, experiences a little panic about the numbers, calls a pharmacist or nurse and expresses their fear and concern, and that person almost automatically responds with a consequential action, in this case, changing the dose of the blood pressure med. Over the phone. Without a doctor being aware of what is happening.

Thanks to having so much experience with me in the house, Scott was able to help our loved one with repositioning the arm cuff which then led to much more pleasant numbers, and no need at all to change the dose and/or drive in to urgent care or call an ambulance.  Having been through two decades of my own arm and wrist cuffs and also being trained to take a blood pressure in nursing school, one of the first questions I asked when I got the call was- did you get the cuff positioned right, because those numbers don't sound right at all. I'd never heard of a systolic/diastolic combo as weird as that one, which usually means the cuff isn't reading the pressure properly. I couldn't believe that neither a pharmacist nor a nurse had even thought to question that before dispensing medical advice.


Even though taking a blood pressure reading is very easy, especially with today's techy gadgets, it's also very easy to mistakenly get a bad reading if you haven't been trained or don't take the time to read the instructions. It also helps to practice every once in awhile, and then write down what you get at what time throughout the day or night. Over the course of several days you'll find that 1- your blood pressure naturally goes up with movement and/or worry, 2- your blood pressure normally goes up and down all day and even all night, 3- you can make your blood pressure numbers better by pooping first or staying hydrated or simply just not caring what the numbers will be. It's very nerve wracking to shoot for a target number and then try to hit it on the nose, and even more nerve wracking when a new med makes you feel funny so your body responds against it and then you think the pill is killing you because your blood pressure went up instead of down.

My doctor is happy when he sees that my blood pressure isn't over 140/90. I have all kinds of tension driving into town and then sitting in his office, and my blood pressure pill can't force me to hold at 120/80 for beans. But after I get home and piddle around, I'm back down to 115/75 or something like that. It's hard not to believe your blood pressure pill will stop your heart from beating when dose time comes around and your pressure is already really good, and then you can go through another panic reaction if you go ahead and take it and suddenly your BP surges up to something like 180/110. Many people don't realize your body can override your BP med and that changing a dose based on panic causes even more problems down the road.


You don't know all this if you don't take your blood pressure. Ignorance is bliss. However, if you have diabetes or heart disease, you need to be checking it at least once a week to make sure you're on track with your meds in between doctor visits. The thing is, most people don't catch their blood pressure actually behaving well, even if it might be. That's why it's good to take a few readings at different times through the day for about a week when you first start taking your own readings. Find out what your normal really is. Your normal is an average of ups and downs, and your target for normal is around 120/80.

I have learned over the last 20 years that I can still function at 90/60 if a time release calcium channel blocker gets metabolized too quickly (even aced a college exam in that state), but you definitely don't get into a car and drive until you get over feeling like molasses dripping slowly down the furniture. My doctor pulled me off the time release after I got that reading and called him, and eventually switched me to a beta blocker. I've also learned that just switching to different kinds of blood pressure meds don't automatically solve problems IF your body doesn't or can't respond correctly or over responds while it's still fighting the sudden withdrawal of the one before, so jumping from a beta blocker or calcium channel blocker to an alpha blocker might bring one person relief and another person more problems. I went through a pretty rough month one year trying a different kind every week and finally on the fifth week came back to a beta blocker, which isn't ideal for me because I have multiple allergy issues and beta blockers exacerbate histamine levels and aren't necessarily top choice for diabetics, BUT I'm used to it, I tolerate it well, and with as much experience as I have with it, I am able to adjust my dose while I monitor over several days if there are any changes, like when I'm on prednisone (big blood pressure drop) or experiencing any kind of inflammation or autoimmune flare up (blood pressure goes up and stays up when I'm sick).

Types of Blood Pressure Medications - It really does help to know more about the med you're on.

Choosing Blood Pressure Medications - Having more knowledge also helps us relax, and relaxing gives us more accurate pressure readings.

High blood pressure is a scary thing over time, but it's not something that's going to outright kill you right now today just because you took a blood pressure reading and scared yourself silly and it keeps going up every time you take another reading. Walk away from the cuff. Don't start popping blood pressure pills trying to force it down, and I'll tell you why with this example about the antihistamines Benadryl and Zyrtec- They're basically the same thing, only Benadryl works immediately to bring histamine reactions back down in the body during a crisis, while Zyrtec works more over time to help keep them down in the first place. Taking Benadryl doesn't prevent new reactions from happening because it mostly works the first hour or two you take it, but Zyrtec does if you keep it in your system by taking one every day, and the antihistamine effects are continual. Blood pressure meds are kind of like this. Some are more immediate, but most work best over time. When you start a new BP med or change your dose, it can take a few days or maybe even a couple of weeks before you see a steady lower reading, with others you might have a more immediate response. The last thing you want to do without supervision is pile on more medication to do something immediate that might actually have adverse longer term affects.


Any kind of pill that causes change in the body can feel disturbing. Your body is used to a certain way of doing things, it's got its own default set, and a pill is forcing it to change how it does things and set a new default. The first few days you're on a new med or dose change you might feel light headed or sluggish, and it will get even more confusing real quick if you start taking readings and panicking, because then your body will think you believe the pill is poison and it will fight against it trying to 'save your life', even though that pill might be what is saving your life in the long run.

I know all this because I have lived through some monumental panic attacks that sent my BP soaring to 240/130. I'm high risk for blood clots and strokes (family history), so you can bet that scares the crap outa me, but I'm still here, not one sign of even a mini-clot yet (yes, I've had brain scans), and I'm getting tired of panicking over it. Just a note here- I've only twice ever been given something to bring my blood pressure down and I hated it. I've had nitroglycerin spray under my tongue in an ambulance when it wasn't even that high, and another time I had it intravenously, probably more to force me to calm my nerves than anything so they could send me home. I wound up with throbbing headaches both times.


If you think you might need emergency help because you see a high reading, do this checklist- Am I breathing ok? Is my chest hurting? Am I dizzy? Am I moving around and functioning and thinking normally? If high blood pressure is the only symptom you are having and it's happening while you are in an alarmed state, then it's most likely temporary. I'm not advising you to sit at home with a pile of nerves and screaming high blood pressure, but I am saying that it will most likely come down after the adrenaline (fight or flight hormone) is filtered back out of your bloodstream and tissues, and even in an ER it has taken up to 6 hours for mine to come down. They mostly just watch it. If there are no other emergency symptoms, they generally don't treat, because if they treat and you really didn't need it because you're already on a blood pressure pill, your blood pressure will really drop when it does come down, which will scare you all over again. It's a fun little roller coaster that winds up getting really expensive really fast. So if you aren't having any other symptoms, try distracting yourself with ice packs and TV or a book (never do heavy exercise with your blood pressure already up real high) or maybe talk to someone on the phone or something, and then later you might notice the readings coming down.

Having said that, if you've got a history of blood clots, heart attack, or strokes, don't wait 6 hours if your blood pressure is staying high because I said to, because I certainly don't. I expect mine to come back down in about an hour or two, and it's always been back down in six without much intervention.

Also, if you have a jumpy spouse or whoever in the house that doesn't know how to help you stay calm and relaxed and actually kind of makes it worse with their attitude or their own panic or crabby reaction, it's your call whether you're going to sit there and let that dictate whether you go into some kind of overload and have a heart attack or something, which is one reason I have so much experience going on to the ER. People who don't have their own experience with how scary it is feeling their heart pound or simply just fearing death in general can be counterintuitive to blood pressure coming back down if they can't help being snippy or snarky or just plain mean, even if they don't mean it. When their turn comes, they'll be a big baby, too, but in the meantime, anger and hurt feelings only make high blood pressure worse, and feeling sorry for yourself in that kind of situation and not going in just to make someone pay if something really does turn out to be wrong is a stupid game to play. I've watched people play that game. No one wins.


Ok, back to basics. If you take readings at home, it's important to practice on other people besides yourself, it's important that other people learn how to take your blood pressure for you if you need them to (kids love this), and it's important that you NOT take every single reading so seriously that you wind up sending yourself to the hospital. It's ok to see weird numbers. The first thing you do is check whether the cuff is placed correctly, whether it needs a battery change, whether you might need a new one if that one has been dropped too hard or is getting old, and whether you get crazy numbers on anyone else in the house. Never assume your first reading is written in stone or that it means death, ok?

In all my years, I've also discovered that there is such a thing as too much blood pressure medication. Logic would seem like the more you take, the more your blood pressure goes down, and then at a certain point you just don't take any more because you've reached your goal. Wrong. Blood pressure meds don't work like that. Your body will always try to keep your heart beating until it simply can't any more, and your fight or flight hormones will always try to boost your heart rate up if your body feels like it's getting too low until it simply can't. I didn't know for years that one of the reasons I was waking up with a racing heart out of a dead sleep was because my heart rate would drop low enough that my brain would kick it back up, and this didn't stop until I lowered by blood pressure med dose, even though my daytime blood pressure was staying above 120/80. It's actually pretty normal for blood pressure to drop and spike while you sleep, but mine was getting a little ridiculous about it. I seemed fine while I was up and moving around, but the second I went to sleep, boom, racing heart. I went to sleep clinic, no signs of apnea, wore monitors, no signs of any problems once my SVT was corrected, but I ran across an article at Blood Sugar 101 called Why is Blood Sugar Highest in the Morning? 

Taking a bit too much blood pressure medication can also cause your blood sugar to go up first thing in the morning. That is because if your blood pressure drops too low at night, the body will also secrete stress hormones to raise the blood pressure back into the safe zone, and they have the side effect, as we've seen, of raising blood sugar.

Again, the tip-off that this is happening is that you are likely to wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. with your pulse pounding, sometimes you will think this is because of a vivid nightmare, but it is more likely that the nightmare was a response to the surge of stress hormones that raised your blood pressure.

If you measure your blood pressure after waking, the main thing you'll see is a faster pulse. The blood pressure will be back in the normal, or even slightly high zone. If you raise your medication because the blood pressure is too high first thing in the morning, you may make the situation worse!

If you are waking up with a pounding pulse in the early morning hours and see your morning blood sugar rising, too, talk to your doctor about whether your blood pressure medication needs adjustment. 

That one article has saved me so much grief. I'm on less than half the BP med dose than I was on when I first read that article, and I feel so much better! Part of that is I've discovered other things that artificially raise blood pressure. The biggie for me was my birth control pill. My blood pressure had been high for years and I never thought to connect it with my birth control until I went through menopause and my blood pressure just went insane and nothing we did could control it. A doctor finally pulled me off my birth control and voila, blood pressure suddenly dropped and I had to cut my blood pressure medication dose in half. Then suddenly it went up again because (try to follow this, it's just ridiculous) stopping the estrogen suddenly sent me super hyper thyroid because evidently estrogen blocks thyroid hormone uptake and I therefore had to take a higher dose of synthroid for years, and suddenly the whole dose was being used without the birth control pill in the way, so my blood pressure surged again. (That's a whole lot of suddenly.) My doctor stopped the thyroid pill until that leveled out, then started a lower dose, and suddenly my blood pressure dropped again. That was two really interesting months, and I was a mess. But I've never since gone back up to as high a dose of blood pressure med as I was on previously.


I've had another pleasant surprise lately. I have discovered, as I am cutting all wheat from my diet, thanks to another dumb food reaction that took 2 1/2 weeks of prednisone to control, that cutting my carbs way down again is also having a very positive impact on my blood pressure, and I'm once again having to cut my medication dose and monitor every day. If my body winds up defaulting down to this new blood pressure default level, I might even be able to wean off my blood pressure pill (never cold turkey off a beta blocker). I'm very excited about that. In case you are on the fence about wheat and/or carbs and fighting your own high blood pressure battle, check this out. It's a bit of reading, but if you are desperate for relief and nothing is working, you can always try it. Sure worked for me.

Sorry so long, but I got to thinking about how I wish I could find more people just talking about their experiences with this stuff when I was younger and searching the webs for stuff in the night. I mean, not freaking out in forums or whining on blogs, but just talking about stuff, you know? Well, this is me talking. You are going to be ok, but you've got to want to get better bad enough to make changes and stick to them. In the meantime, learn about your blood pressure meds, practice taking your blood pressure, and don't feel guilty when it gets scary. You're not alone. I've been dealing with blood pressure pills for 20 years and it's still scary sometimes, but mostly because I hate the way my body feels and reacts when things change.

Pills are like bandaids, they are temporary patches to help us manage what should be temporary problems. Sadly, they've become lifestyles, and now it's all about managing our medications. Popping pills to fix things isn't the answer, but while we're having big problems, they are a relief, and they give us time to figure out what is going wrong and find ways to get our health back on track.


2 comments:

  1. Like you I have to check my blood pressure, I also wake up in he middle of the night but it is because of the nightmares! some things don't go away. Thank you for the clown picture, made my evening!

    ReplyDelete