How Important Is Your Blood Pressure Reading?
They check your blood pressure reading every time you see your doctor. You're bombarded with TV ads about medications designed to combat high blood pressure. You're warned against eating too much salt, told to get regular exercise, and offered a bazillion options for losing weight. All this because of your potential for high blood pressure.
So what's the big deal about a couple of numbers on a blood pressure cuff?
What Is Blood Pressure?
"Blood pressure" (BP) is exactly what the name implies: the pressure your blood exerts on the blood vessel holding it. Your blood exerts pressure in both your arteries and your veins. A blood pressure reading consists of two numbers displayed as a fraction.
When your heart muscle contracts, or beats, it pushes blood through your arteries. The amount of pressure the blood exerts against the walls of the arteries is the top number of the BP fraction. This is the systolic pressure or the amount of force the blood exerts on the artery walls.
In between beats, your heart muscle relaxes. This allows it to fill back up with blood to be pumped out again. The bottom number of the fraction is your diastolic pressure or the amount of force the blood exerts on the vein walls between your heartbeats.
So, why are these numbers important? Think of it this way: consider a water balloon. It expands as you fill it with water because of the pressure the water exerts on the inside wall of the balloon. But it can only withstand a certain amount of this pressure before it ruptures, spewing water everywhere.
The same principle applies to your arteries and veins. They can only withstand a certain amount of pressure before damage occurs.
How to Check Your Blood Pressure
To check your blood pressure at home, you'll need a personal blood pressure measurement device. You can obtain these at most pharmacies and general retail stores. These BP monitors are easy and safe to use. Those that measure your BP on your upper arm generally produce more reliable results than those that measure from the wrist. Most are automated and display the results digitally. Checking your BP is as simple as putting on the cuff and pressing a button.
For Accurate Readings
Follow these tips for more accurate readings:
- Don't smoke, exercise, or drink caffeinated beverages within 30 minutes of checking your BP
- Use a cuff that fits your arm
- Measure at the same time each day
- Sit in an upright position with your arm supported at heart level
- The bottom of the cuff should be directly on your bicep
- Relax for five minutes before activating the cuff
How Often to Check
Blood pressure naturally fluctuates. One high reading isn't necessarily a cause for alarm, and everyone's BP will be different throughout the day. Talk with your doctor to formulate an individualized plan for monitoring your blood pressure.
As a general rule, most begin by measuring their blood pressure twice each morning and twice each evening for the first week. Then check it once a day for an additional week. Keep a record of your readings and take this information with you to your next doctor's appointment.
Playing the Numbers Game
What's considered your ideal blood pressure is something you should discuss with your doctor. When considering normal systolic and diastolic blood pressures, the American Heart Association recommends the following ranges.
- Systolic (upper number) less than 120 mm Hg
- Diastolic (lower number) less than 80 mm Hg
- If your BP falls in the normal range, stick with your regular heart-healthy habits
- Systolic range 120 - 129 mm Hg
- Diastolic less than 80 mm Hg
- Persistent elevated BP can lead to hypertension unless you take steps to counter the condition.
High Blood Pressure
- Hypertension stage 1
- Systolic range 130 - 139 mm Hg
- Diastolic range 80 - 89 mm Hg
- If either systolic or diastolic falls in these ranges, BP is considered hypertension stage 1.
- Stage 1 Hypertension usually requires doctor-prescribed medication to prevent heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
High Blood Pressure
- Hypertension stage 2
- Systolic range 140 mm Hg or higher
- Diastolic range 90 mm Hg or higher
- If either systolic or diastolic falls in these ranges, BP is considered hypertension stage 2.
- Stage 2 Hypertension usually requires a combination of doctor-prescribed medications and lifestyle changes, including dietary changes and exercise recommendations.
- Systolic higher than 180 mm Hg
- Diastolic higher than 120 mm Hg
- If either systolic or diastolic falls in these ranges, consult your doctor immediately.
- Hypertensive crisis requires medical attention. You may experience chest pain, back pain, shortness of breath, weakness or numbness, changes in vision, or difficulty speaking. Call 911
Ways to Lower Blood Pressure
Benjamin Franklin said it best in 1735: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This idiom holds true when it comes to high blood pressure. There are relatively simple steps that can keep high blood pressure at bay.
- Maintain healthy body weight
- Include lots of fruits and vegetables in your diet
- Reduce the salt (sodium) in your diet
- Get at least thirty minutes of regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, three or more days each week
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- If you smoke, QUIT
- Reduce your caffeine intake
- Reduce stress as much as you can
- Monitor your blood pressure at home
- See your doctor on a regular schedule
But I'm in Good Shape!
High blood pressure can be a perplexing ailment. In some cases, there is an identifiable cause, such as dietary factors, lack of exercise, excess weight, or disorders such as kidney disease. Hypertension of this nature is classified as secondary hypertension.
Most cases of high blood pressure fall under the umbrella of essential hypertension. This is high blood pressure that doesn't have a specific known cause. Genetics is a big factor in someone's predisposition to essential hypertension. This type rarely has any noticeable symptoms and is usually discovered through regular medical examinations. Essential hypertension can begin at any age but tends to show up more often in middle age.
Along with healthy life choices, supplements of some vitamins and minerals have been shown to support healthy blood pressure levels. Some of these vitamins and minerals include:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins
High blood pressure is not a condition to play around with, but it is a condition that is controllable and manageable with regular medical care and proper lifestyle choices.
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