What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure provides clues about the amount of work your heart is doing to pump blood through your arteries. The other vital signs are:
Vital signs help show how well your body is functioning. If a vital sign is too high or too low, it’s a sign that something may be wrong with your health.
Blood pressure is measured using two different readings. The first reading is called your systolic pressure. That’s the first or top number in a reading. The second reading is your diastolic number.
For example, you may see blood pressure written as 117/80 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury). In that case, the systolic pressure is 117 and the diastolic pressure is 80.
Systolic pressure measures the pressure inside of the artery when the heart is contracting to pump blood. The diastolic pressure is the pressure inside the artery once the heart is resting between beats.
Higher numbers in either recording can show that the heart is working extra hard to pump blood through your arteries. This may be the result of an outside force, like if you’re stressed or scared, which causes your blood vessels to become more narrow. It could also be caused by an internal force, such as buildup in your arteries that can cause your blood vessels to become narrower.
How to monitor-and lower-your blood pressure at home
Tracking your blood pressure readings over time will help you and your doctor make more educated treatment decisions.
Home blood pressure monitors are accurate and easy to use. The information you get from tracking your blood pressure levels regularly at home can help you lower your risk for a heart attack—or other heart-related event—better than occasional measurements at a doctor’s office.
Dr. Randall Zusman, director of the Division of Hypertension at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends home blood pressure monitoring to his patients. “It gives some feedback about how they’re doing, and that helps reinforce the efforts they’re making,” he says. Taking your blood pressure at home also helps avoid “white-coat syndrome,” the nervous surge in blood pressure some people experience during a doctor’s visit.
Why do I need to monitor my blood pressure at home?
- Help with early diagnosis. Self-monitoring can help your doctor diagnose high blood pressure earlier than if you have only occasional blood pressure readings in a medical office. Home monitoring is especially important if you have elevated blood pressure or another condition that could contribute to high blood pressure, such as diabetes or kidney problems.
- Help track your treatment. The only way to know whether your lifestyle changes or medications are working is to check your blood pressure regularly. Monitoring blood pressure changes at home can help you and your doctor make decisions about your treatment, such as adjusting dosages or changing medications.
- Encourage better control. Self-monitoring can give you a stronger sense of responsibility for your health. You may feel even more motivated to control your blood pressure with an improved diet, physical activity and proper medication use.
- Cut your health care costs. Self-monitoring might decrease your number of visits to your doctor or clinic.
Not everyone can track blood pressure at home. If you have an irregular heartbeat, home blood pressure monitors might not give you an accurate reading.
How blood pressure is tested
A device called a sphygmomanometer will be used to measure your blood pressure.
This usually consists of a stethoscope, arm cuff, pump and dial, although automatic devices that use sensors and have a digital display are also commonly used nowadays.
It’s best to sit down with your back supported and legs uncrossed for the test.
During the test:
- you hold out one of your arms so it’s at the same level as your heart, and the cuff is placed around it – your arm should be supported in this position, such as with a cushion or arm of a chair
You can usually find out your result straight away, either from the healthcare professional carrying out the test or on the digital display.
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