There are four fundamental vital signs that doctors use to measure a person’s current state of functioning:
- heart rate
- respiratory rate
- blood pressure
These measurements indicate how well the body’s major systems are working and can help doctors diagnose problems and predict health outcomes.
What Is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the measure of the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries.
There are two parts to a blood pressure reading: the systolic pressure (the top or first number) and the diastolic pressure (the bottom or second number).
With each heart pump, blood is pulsed through your arteries and circulated throughout your body. Your blood vessels accommodate these pulses of blood by expanding and contracting.
The systolic pressure measures the force of blood flow as blood is pushed through your arteries. The diastolic pressure measures the force of blood flow between beats.
With this information, doctors can get an idea of how hard your heart is working to pump blood and how well your arteries are able to accommodate the flow of blood.
Heart diseases, kidney failure, and stroke are typically preceded by high blood pressure, so knowing these measurements can help doctors diagnose problems early and prevent more severe health complications.
In cases of low blood pressure, your muscles and tissues may not be getting the blood and oxygen they need, resulting in lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting.
How Your Blood Pressure is Measured
Your doctor’s office will likely measure your blood pressure manually, using a sphygmomanometer and a stethoscope.
After squeezing a cuff around your upper arm to temporarily cut off the flow of blood, they will slowly release the cuff and listen to the sound of blood flowing through your brachial artery. They will be noted when the first sound is heard (systolic pressure) and when the last sound is heard (diastolic pressure).
This process requires some training and practice to get accurate readings, so it’s essential to have your blood pressure checked by a professional.
Tips for At-Home Blood Pressure Reading
Your doctor may ask you to routinely monitor your blood pressure at home using an easy-to-use digital blood pressure monitor.
- Read the device’s instructions carefully and follow all the calibration steps.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the hour before taking your blood pressure.
- Use the bathroom first. A full bladder can elevate readings.
- Do not talk or engage in conversation during the reading.
- Your back should be supported and your legs uncrossed.
- Your arm should be supported at the heart level.
- Make sure you have the correct cuff size to fit your arm.
- Take multiple readings on many occasions to track your baseline and fluctuations.
- Bring your home monitor to your next doctor’s appointment to compare its accuracy to their equipment.
A standard blood pressure measurement is a systolic pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic pressure of less than 80. When the numbers reach 130+ over 80+, high blood pressure or hypertension is considered.
Your doctor can help you understand what your numbers mean and what steps you need to take to lower your blood pressure if it’s too high.