by Diane Forrest
Understanding Blood Pressure Readings
SystolicThe top number, which is also the higher of the two numbers, measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (when the heart muscle contracts).
The bottom number, which is also the lower of the two numbers, measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats (when the heart muscle is resting between beats and refilling with blood).
* Your doctor should evaluate unusually low blood pressure readings.
mm Hg (upper #)
mm Hg (lower #)
less than 120
less than 80
120 – 139
80 – 89
High Blood Pressure
(Hypertension) Stage 1
140 – 159
90 – 99
High Blood Pressure
(Hypertension) Stage 2
160 or higher
100 or higher
(Emergency care needed)
Higher than 180
Higher than 110
Blood pressure is the pressure exerted by the circulating blood against the blood vessels. It is measured with a sphygmomanometer, blood pressure cuff and stethoscope.
The cuff is placed on the upper arm, above the elbow and fastened securely. The stethoscope is placed on the inside bend of the arm on the brachial artery. The cuff is then pumped up until the sphygmomanometer reaches about 200 mmhg (lower for younger people). The air from the pump is then slowly released until a pulse is heard. This is your first reading and is called the Systolic blood pressure. While continuing to release the air until no more pulse is heard, the number at the last sound of the pulse beat is called the Diastolic Pressure.
Signs and Symptoms of Hypertension:
Hypertension can go undetected for years. It may not be discovered until you have it checked on a routine exam.
Some signs you may have include:
- Vision changes
- Nose bleeds
- Irregular heartbeat
- Family history of hypertension
- African American
- Increased salt in diet
- Certain medications
- Pregnancy (This is called PreEclampsia and will normally go away after the birth of the child)
To determine if you have hypertension have your blood pressure checked more than once. There can be many factors that can cause an abnormal reading. Things such as stress, excitement, fear, injury can all raise your blood pressure reading.
My husband was afraid to go to the doctor, so every time he had to go his blood pressure reading was high. However, once we got home I would check it again and it would be normal. To confirm your diagnosis, it is recommended you check it for several times in a week, usually at the same time. For example, if your first check is at 11:00 in the morning on a Monday, have it checked again on Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 in the morning. You can have this done at your doctor's office or hospital. There is normally no charge for blood pressure checks. I would not recommend using a drug store machine for the purpose of diagnosing hypertension as these machines may not be accurate.
- If it is determined that you do in fact have hypertension, it may first be treated with simply lowering your salt intake and watching your diet.
- Exercise and increasing water intake may also be prescribed.
- If these measures do not help in lowering your blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe antihypertensive medications.
- All adults over the age of 18 should have their blood pressure checked routinely.
- Early detection can prevent developing major problems later.
- For more information see the American Heart Association.