Harvard Heart Letter

When high blood pressure affects the arteries to the lungs

New drugs help expand treatment options for pulmonary hypertension.

The common, garden-variety type of high blood pressure (what doctors call hypertension) affects vessels throughout the body. But a less common form affects the arteries that carry blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs. The vessels tighten, become stiff and thick, or develop blood clots.

Known as pulmonary hypertension, the condition affects both the lungs and the heart. The right side of the heart works harder to pump blood to the lungs. At the same time, damage to the small vessels within the lungs means less oxygen reaches the blood. Over time, the heart's right ventricle changes shape and can't function effectively, says Dr. Bradley Maron, a cardiovascular disease specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's hospital. "When this happens, people don't do well. They get sick, go to the hospital often, and tend to have a shorter life span."

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