PhotoConsumers with high blood pressure spend billions of dollars each year on prescription medication to keep it in check.

But what if there were a medical procedure that made that unnecessary? Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK say there may be.

The scientists have concluded that carotid bodies, a small cluster of nerves and cells next to the carotid artery, are a cause of high blood pressure. This revelation, they say, offers a new target for treatment.

The research team says removing one carotid body from some patients with high blood pressure caused an immediate and sustained drop in blood pressure.

“The falls in blood pressure we have seen are impressive – more than you would see with pharmacological medication – and demonstrate the exciting potential there now is for targeting the carotid body to treat hypertension,” said Dr. Angus Nightingale, of the Bristol Heart Institute.

The theory

The theory goes like this: the carotid bodies monitor levels of oxygen in the blood. When oxygen levels fall they sound the alarm, instructing the brain to step up the level of breathing and blood pressure.

But in some cases, the monitored fall in oxygen level is a false reading. The way the scientists explain it, it's like the thermostat on your furnace being set too high.

Professor Julian Paton, one of the researchers, says it's a novel approach but one that could potentially be a game-changer for the treatment of high blood pressure. Currently, he says, medication only treats the symptoms of high blood pressure. Removing the corotid bodies, he says, gets at the root cause.

Wouldn't help in every case

Nightingale makes clear the procedure would not be the answer for every case, but also says that the research team has developed some tests that would help identify patients for whom it would be effective. But that's not to say there isn't a role for drugs.

“Although this surgical approach to controlling high blood pressure was successful, we don’t think this will be the solution in the long term,” Nightingale said. “We now need to find a drug that dampens down an overactive carotid body and resets the blood pressure thermostat to a normal level.”

Hypertension is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and a major contributor to strokes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 70 million Americans have high blood pressure, the treatment of which cost $46 billion in health care services, medications, and missed days of work in 2011.

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