John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Conditions that reduce the volume of blood, reduce cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped by the heart), and medications are frequent reasons for low blood pressure.
Dehydration is common among patients with prolonged nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive exercise which shunts blood away from the organs to the muscles. Large amounts of water are lost when vomiting and with diarrhea, especially if the person does not drink adequate amounts of fluid to replace the depleted water.
Other causes of dehydration include exercise, sweating, fever, and heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Individuals with mild dehydration may experience only thirst and dry mouth. Moderate to severe dehydration may cause orthostatic hypotension (manifested by lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting upon standing). Prolonged and severe dehydration can lead to shock, kidney failure, confusion, acidosis (too much acid in the blood), coma, and even death.
Moderate or severe bleeding can quickly deplete an individual's body of blood, leading to low blood pressure or orthostatic hypotension. Bleeding can result from trauma, surgical complications, or from gastrointestinal abnormalities such as ulcers, tumors, or diverticulosis. Occasionally, the bleeding may be so severe and rapid (for example, bleeding from a ruptured aortic aneurysm) that it causes shock and death rapidly.
Severe inflammation of organs inside the body such as acute pancreatitis can cause low blood pressure. In acute pancreatitis, fluid leaves the blood vessels to enter the inflamed tissues around the pancreas as well as the abdominal cavity, concentrating blood and reducing its volume.
Causes of low blood pressure due to heart disease
Weakened heart muscle can cause the heart to fail and reduce the amount of blood it pumps. One common cause of weakened heart muscle is the death of a large portion of the heart's muscle due to a single, large heart attack or repeated smaller heart attacks. Other examples of conditions that can weaken the ability of the heart to pump blood include medications that are toxic to the heart, infections of the muscle of the heart by viruses (myocarditis), and diseases of the heart's valves such as aortic stenosis that reduce the flow of blood from the heart and into the arteries.
Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart). Pericarditis can cause fluid to accumulate within the pericardium and compress the heart, restricting the ability of the heart to expand, fill, and pump blood.
Pulmonary embolism is a condition in which a blood clot in a vein (deep vein thrombosis) breaks off and travels to the heart and eventually the lung. A large blood clot can block the flow of blood into the left ventricle from the lungs and severely diminish the blood returning to the heart for pumping. Pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening emergency.
A slow heart rate (bradycardia) can decrease the amount of blood pumped by the heart. The resting heart rate for a healthy adult is between 60 and 100 beats/minute. Bradycardia (resting heart rates slower than 60 beats/minute) does not always cause low blood pressure. In fact, some highly trained athletes can have resting heart rates in the 40s and 50s (beats per minute) without any symptoms. The slow heart rates are offset by more forceful contractions of the heart that pump more blood than in non-athletes. But in many patients bradycardia can lead to low blood pressure, lightheadedness, dizziness, and even fainting.
Several common reasons for bradycardia include: 1) sick sinus syndrome, 2) heart block, and 3) drug toxicity. Many of these conditions occur in the elderly.
Sick sinus syndrome: Sick sinus syndrome occurs when the diseased electrical system of the heart cannot generate electrical signals fast enough to maintain a normal heart rate.
Heart block: Heart block occurs when the specialized tissues that transmit electrical current in the heart are damaged by heart attacks, degeneration from atherosclerosis, and medications. Heart block prevents some or all of the electrical signals from reaching parts of the heart, and this prevents the heart from contracting as well as it otherwise would.
Drug toxicity: Drugs such as digoxin (Lanoxin) or beta blockers for high blood pressure can slow the transmission of electricity in the heart chemically and can cause bradycardia and hypotension (see section "Medications that cause low blood pressure").
An abnormally fast heart rate (tachycardia) also can cause low blood pressure. The most common example of tachycardia causing low blood pressure is atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a disorder of the heart characterized by rapid and irregular electrical discharges from the muscle of the heart causing the ventricles to contract irregularly and (usually) rapidly. The rapidly contracting ventricles do not have enough time to fill maximally with blood before each contraction, and the amount of blood that is pumped decreases in spite of the faster heart rate. Other abnormally rapid heart rhythms such as ventricular tachycardia also can produce low blood pressure, sometimes even life-threatening shock.
Medications that cause low blood pressure
Medications such as calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, and digoxin (Lanoxin) can slow the rate at which the heart contracts. Some elderly people are extremely sensitive to these medications since they are more likely to have diseased hearts and electrical conduction tissues. In some individuals, the heart rate can become dangerously slow even with small doses of these medications.
Medications used in treating high blood pressure (such as angiotensin converting enzyme or ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and alpha blockers) can excessively lower blood pressure and result in symptomatic low blood pressure especially among the elderly.
Water pills (diuretics) such as hydrochlorothiazide (HydroDIURIL) and furosemide (Lasix) can decrease blood volume by causing excessive urination.
Vasovagal reaction is a common condition in which a healthy person temporarily develops low blood pressure, slow heart rate, and sometimes fainting. A vasovagal reaction typically is brought on by emotions of fear or pain such as having blood drawn, starting an intravenous infusion, or by gastrointestinal upset. Vasovagal reactions are caused by activity of the involuntary (autonomic) nervous system, especially the vagus nerve, which releases hormones that slow the heart and widen the blood vessels. The vagus nerve also controls digestive tract function and senses activity in the digestive system. Thus, some people can have a vasovagal reaction from straining at a bowel movement or vomiting.
Postural (orthostatic) hypotensionis a sudden drop in blood pressure when an individual stands up from a sitting, squatting, or supine (lying) position. When a person stands up, gravity causes blood to settle in the veins in the legs so that less blood returns to the heart for pumping, and, as a result, the blood pressure drops. The body normally responds automatically to the drop in blood pressure by increasing the rate at which the heart beats and by narrowing the veins to return more blood to the heart. In patients with postural hypotension, this compensating reflex fails to occur, resulting low blood pressure and its symptoms. Postural hypotension can occur in persons of all ages but is much more common among the elderly, especially in those on medications for high blood pressure and/or diuretics. Other causes of postural hypotension include dehydration, adrenal insufficiency (discussed later), prolonged bed rest, diabetes that has caused damage to the autonomic nerves, alcoholism with damage to the autonomic nerves, and certain rare neurological syndromes (for example, Shy-Drager syndrome) that damage the autonomic nerves.
Another form of postural hypotension occurs typically in young healthy individuals. After prolonged standing, the individual's heart rate and blood pressure drop, causing dizziness, nausea, and often fainting. In these individuals, the autonomic nervous system wrongly responds to prolonged standing by directing the heart to slow down and the veins to dilate thereby removing blood from circulating in the arteries.
Micturition syncope is a temporary drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness brought about by urinating. This condition typically occurs in elderly patients and may be due to the release by the autonomic nerves of hormones that lower blood pressure.
Adrenal insufficiency, for example, due to Addison's disease, can cause low blood pressure. Addison's disease is a disorder in which the adrenal glands (small glands next to the kidneys) are destroyed. The destroyed adrenal glands can no longer produce sufficient adrenal hormones (specifically cortisol) necessary to maintain normal bodily functions. Cortisol has many functions, one of which is to maintain blood pressure and the function of the heart. Addison's disease is characterized by weight loss, muscle weakness, fatigue, low blood pressure, and, sometimes, darkening of the skin.
Septicemia is a severe infection in which bacteria (or other infectious organisms such as fungi) enter the blood. The infection typically originates in the lungs (as pneumonia), bladder, or in the abdomen due to diverticulitis or gallstones. The bacteria then enter the blood where they release toxins and cause life-threatening and profound low blood pressure (septic shock), often with damage to several organs.
Anaphylaxis (anaphylactic shock) is a potentially fatal allergic reaction to medications such as penicillin, intravenous iodine used in some X-ray studies, foods such as peanuts, or bee stings (insect stings). In addition to a severe drop in blood pressure, individuals may also experience hives and wheezing due to constriction of the airways, and a swollen throat which cause difficulty breathing. The shock is caused by enlargement of blood-containing blood vessels and escape of water from the blood into the tissues.