Folks who have newly been diagnosed with high blood pressure will often be advised to try some lifestyle changes — like cutting down on salt, stopping smoking, losing weight, and getting fit(ter) by engaging in regular exercise. If those don't bring your blood pressure down enough, and your blood pressure remains high over several readings, you may be prescribed an anti-hypertensive. (Usually one to start off with.) You can expect to be put on meds if you've systolic pressure is over 140 (or 150 if you are over 60), and your diastolic pressure is 90 or above.
There's a wide variety of blood pressure drugs out there:
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors)
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs)
- Alpha blockers
- Renin inhibitors
And more. Numerous different medications belong to each of these classes of anti-hypertensives, but the ones we'll be looking at here are beta blockers. These reduce your blood pressure by causing your heart to beat less forcefully as well as more slowly.
Many people with hypertension will ultimately find that the best treatment comes in the form of a combination of several classes of blood pressure medications. Beta blockers are often combined with diuretics.
What Are Beta Blockers Used For?
Common beta blockers include atenolol, bisoprolol, metoprolol, and propranolol. Some of these additionally have brand-name versions.
Beta blockers are most commonly used to treat cardiovascular ailments — angina, heart failure, an irregular heartbeat, post-heart attack, and of course hypertension. More unusual uses for beta blockers include treating migraines and anxiety.
Before We Get To The Side Effects: Who Shouldn't Take Beta Blockers?
Being an informed patient is great, but the responsibility for making sure that you aren't taking medications that you shouldn't, and that different medications you're taking don't interact badly with each other, primarily lies with your prescribing doctor. You do have an important job, though — filling your doctor in on your medical history verbally and making sure they listen.
If your doctor is suggesting beta blockers for your hypertension, make sure to tell them about anything and everything you can think of that could possibly be relevant, but this certainly includes letting them know if you:
- Have asthma
- Have diabetes
- Have had an allergic reaction to any medication in the past or experience side effects from beta blockers before
- Take any other medications — some heart and blood pressure medications interact with beta blockers, as can antipsychotics and other kinds of medication
- Are or might be pregnant, or are currently breastfeeding
In these cases, beta blockers may not be suitable for you.
What Side Effects Can Beta Blockers Cause, And What Should You Do If This Happens?
While most people taking beta blockers will not experience side effects, some do.
One patient, Anna Schaap, who also writes for SteadyHealth, was prescribed a beta blocker in addition to a diuretic when her blood pressure remained too high on the diuretic alone. She told me: "When my doctor started me on this beta blocker, he said to give it a go for three months. I felt like death the whole time — heart palpitations, insomnia, sweat, 'heart cramps'. Just very, very bad. I stuck it out and when I came back for the follow-up, he asked me why I hadn't come back before. 'Because you told me to try it for three months,' I replied. Don't make the mistake I did, and report feeling bad right away, so you don't have to suffer for months."
Anna touched on some of the possible side effects, as well as what not to do when you experience them. See your doctor if you have bad side effects, people!
Besides heart palpitations and insomnia, other possible side effects of beta blockers include:
- Blurred vision
- A very slow heartbeat (the medication is doing what it should, but a bit too much)
- Cold extremities
- Loss of libido and, in men, erectile dysfunction
Take a look at the long, and not even complete, list of classes of high blood pressure drugs at the top of this answer again. If your beta blocker is making your life hell, your doctor has numerous alternative options. While you may be asked to see if mild side effects will pass, more severe side effects or those that have been going on for a while are a sign that your medication regimen needs to be tweaked. It's not uncommon for people with high blood pressure to have to go through some experimentation with different medications before they find the drug or drugs that keep their blood pressure at healthy levels without causing side effects.
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