Getting your blood pressure checked is nothing new. But do you understand it all?
What Exactly Is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure’s the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common disease when that pressure of the blood flowing through the blood vessels is too high.
If your blood pressure gets too high, it can cause serious damage to your blood vessel walls, which can cause scarring, plaque buildup, narrowing of the arteries and blockage, which causes your heart to work harder. All of this can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure.
There are 2 main types of high blood pressure:
- Primary high blood pressure is the most common type and it tends to develop as you age.
- Secondary high blood pressure is caused by another medical condition or use of certain medicines and it usually goes away when this issue is treated.
Risk Factors for High Blood Pressure
- Age – Men usually develop it around age 45 and women after age 65.
- Race – High blood pressure and serious complications are more common for African Americans.
- Family history – It tends to run in families.
- Certain chronic conditions – Kidney disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea can raise your blood pressure.
- Being overweight
- Not being physically active
- Tobacco use
- Too much salt
- Too much alcohol
- Too little potassium
- Too little vitamin D
If you have some of these other risk factors, your doctor may set your blood pressure target lower.
Signs & Symptoms of High Blood Pressure
- Severe headaches
- Feeling tired
- Chest pain
- Feeling flushed in your face
- Difficulty breathing
- Pounding in your head or chest
- Irregular heartbeat
- No symptoms – Hypertension is often called the silent killer, because it often shows no early symptoms.
What Are the Numbers?
- Systolic is the pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts, the top number.
- Diastolic is when your heart rests, the bottom number.
What Are They Doing?
When a nurse takes your blood pressure, you might wonder what they’re doing. These are the steps they’re following:
- They wrap the blood pressure cuff around your arm.
- They place a stethoscope under the cuff at the crease of your elbow (where the major blood vessel of the upper arm is.)
- They inflate the cuff until it stops the flow of blood.
- They slowly loosens the cuff’s valve to let the blood start to flow again and listen for sounds in the blood vessel.
- Then, the first tapping noise they hear, they’ll note as the systolic number, the maximum pressure when the heart contracts.
- The taps fade, and they note the pressure at the last tap as your diastolic number, the minimum pressure while your heart’s at rest.
- Along with your numbers, they note which arm they took your blood pressure on and how you were positioned, like sitting with your feet flat.
Where Should My Numbers Be?
What to Do
|Maintain a healthy lifestyle to avoid raising your levels.|
120 to 139
80 to 89
|Make lifestyle changes.|
140 to 159
90 to 99
|Make lifestyle changes. Possibly start a low-level diuretic.|
160 or higher
|Often 1 or 2 meds are required right away, plus lifestyle changes.|
Source: Consumer Reports, “onHealth”, Volume 23 Number 2
It’s also normal for your blood pressure to change when you sleep, wake up, are active, and are excited or nervous.
Better Control Your Blood Pressure
- Get regular exercise
- Eat a balanced diet that includes lean meats and plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Limit your intake of salt, saturated fat, and alcohol
- Check your blood pressure at home
- Visit your doctor regularly
- Manage stress
- Stop smoking
If you’re worried about your blood pressure, keep an eye on your levels and take them with you to your next appointment. A broad look at your numbers can help your doctor put you on the right track for heart health.
Choosing an At-Home Monitor
One of the best things you can do to manage high blood pressure is to track it regularly. A home monitor will help you keep track of blood pressure readings between visits to the doctor.
There are many different types of at-home blood pressure monitors, and there are always the booth ones at local pharmacies. While the style may be different, monitors come with the same basic parts. They have:
- An inflatable cuff or strap
- A gauge for readouts
- And some use and come with a stethoscope
Things to keep in mind for good blood pressure readings:
- It is important to get one with a cuff that fits your arm, because a cuff that is too small will give a high reading no matter what.
- Your doctor can help you find the best option for you and teach you how to use it correctly.
- If you already have an at-home monitor, bring it with you to the doctor’s office so they can check its accuracy.
Getting Good Blood Pressure Readings at Home
These tips from the Mayo Clinic can help you get good blood pressure readings at home:
- Measure your blood pressure twice a day.
- Don’t take a reading immediately after waking up.
- Avoid food, caffeine, and tobacco for at least 30 minutes before taking a reading.
- Sit quietly for a few minutes before measuring.
- Make sure you are seated with both feet on the floor, with your back supported.
- Support your arm on an arm rest or table top on an even level with your heart.
- Don’t talk while taking your blood pressure.
Getting Good Blood Pressure Readings at the Doctor’s Office
According to findings from the University of Virginia Health System, how you’re positioned while taking a blood pressure reading can change your reading by up to 15%. Make sure your blood pressure readings are as correct as possible:
Take a Breather
We’ve all been there. You’re running late for your doctor’s appointment, so you’re rushing into the building at the last second. If you’re called back right away, ask the nurse to wait a few minutes to take your blood pressure so your heart rate has time to return to its normal level.
Just like at home, make sure you’re sitting in a chair with your back supported with both feet flat on the floor. Support your extended arm at heart level.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Let your nurse know if the blood pressure cuff feels too tight or loose. Just like with your at-home monitor, too tight can give you a falsely high reading.
Compare Blood Pressure Readings
Check to see how a reading at the doctor’s matches your at-home readings.