Long ago, doctors identified the culprit behind a menacing “silent epidemic:” high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. People with untreated hypertension are at significantly increased risk for atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke and even sudden death. Clearly, it’s in everyone’s best interest to monitor—and take steps to control—their blood pressure levels. Hypertension has been called “silent” because it often develops despite no initial outward signs or symptoms.
What is Blood Pressure?
Whenever you visit the doctor, he or she invariably takes note of some fundamental vital signs: your breath, pulse, and blood pressure. Your doctor wants to know how fast your heart is pumping, and how much force is being generated against your blood vessel walls as blood moves from your heart through your body. Among other things, this gives a quick overview of the status of your heart and blood vessels; your cardiovascular system.
Using a device called a sphygmomanometer, he or she will place an adjustable cuff around your arm, just above the elbow. They’ll pump it full of air, slowly release it, and listen to your pulse through a stethoscope, placed at the crook of your elbow. After a minute or two, they’ll remove the cuff and write down some numbers.
These include a high and a low number. The top number represents your systolic pressure. That’s the pressure exerted against your blood vessel walls when the heart is beating and squeezing blood through the circulatory system. The bottom number represents the diastolic portion of your reading. This is a measure of the pressure on the system between heart beats, when the heart is resting.
What Do the Numbers Mean?
Traditionally, pressure readings have been measured in units called millimeters of mercury. This harks back to the days when a mercury-filled column was used to help measure pressure. A typical, ideal blood pressure reading might look something like this: 120/80 mmHg. Of course, your blood pressure changes often throughout the day, usually in response to things like sudden exertion, emotional excitation, or simply sleeping or waking.
So-called “white-coat hypertension” reflects the well-known phenomenon that some people simply get nervous whenever they visit the doctor, and develop temporary high blood pressure. That’s why doctors often take several readings if an initial reading appears abnormal. After you’ve been sitting a while, calming down, your blood pressure is likely to fall somewhat if you suffer from this common condition.
Of course, these days, machines exist that have more or less automated this time-honored procedure. And that makes it convenient for people to monitor their own blood pressure at home, on a regular basis. Guidelines are occasionally adjusted to reflect current and emerging knowledge about the risks of elevated blood pressure. But among adults, “normal” blood pressure is generally accepted to be 120/80 mmHg, or less.
As numbers rise, so too does the risk of hypertension. Prehypertension is a transitional phase during which numbers are creeping up, and doctors are likely to become concerned, even though classic hypertension has not yet been diagnosed.
Prehypertension ranges from 120-139 mmHg systolic (top number) OR 80-89 mmHg diastolic (bottom number). According to the National Institutes of Health, Stage I Hypertension is characterized by systolic numbers ranging from 140-159, or a diastolic number of 90-99. Stage II Hypertension features systolic readings in the range of 160 or higher, or a diastolic number in the range of 100 or higher. Left untreated, any form of hypertension can lead to blood vessel damage and eventual cardiovascular disease. Given that heart disease remains our number one killer, it’s in every person’s interest to monitor—and take steps to control—their blood pressure.
People suffering from type 2 diabetes are at elevated risk for cardiovascular disease—and hypertension—and they are among the individuals who are most likely to benefit from regular, careful blood pressure monitoring at home. A good diet featuring plenty of fresh greens and vegetables is a good place to start. Getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight are also extremely important for blood pressure control. That leaves monitoring.
How to Take Your Own Blood Pressure
Purchase a digital blood-pressure monitoring device. Many options exist. These days, reliable models are available for less than $100. Non-professionals probably don’t need to spend much more than this to obtain an adequate device capable of rendering reliable results. Be sure the adjustable cuff is appropriate for the person who will be using the monitor. Place the cuff over the upper arm and adjust for a snug fit.
Follow device directions to use. Most monitors are more or less fully automated. All you have to do is sit calmly for several minutes before donning the cuff (an arrow usually indicates where the cuff should be oriented towards your artery), initiating the machine’s self-inflation, and waiting calmly for the device to release air pressure as it monitors your pulse at the elbow. Most of these devices feature the ability to track and store readings; some even allow two or more people to monitor and track their results. If your first reading seems too high, try taking a slow, deep breath and releasing it. The breath is one of the keys to bringing pressure down when it’s elevated due to stress.
Please note that everyone should consult a doctor on a regular basis to monitor their vital signs, evaluate their health, and obtain any advice or treatment in the event that hypertension is discovered. Hypertension is a potentially serious disease. If your pressure exceeds normal ranges, seek medical advice.
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