Blood pressure for dummies

What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood in your arteries as your heart pumps it around your body. Your blood pressure changes all the time, depending on what you are doing, your overall health, and even the air temperature.

How can I tell what my blood pressure is?
It is impossible to tell if you have high or low blood pressure without measuring it. There are no external signs of high blood pressure, and the symptoms of low blood pressure are quite general. To tell if your blood pressure is healthy you will need to go to your doctor and ask him or her to measure it for you.

How is blood pressure measured?
Blood pressure is measured by wrapping an inflatable pressure cuff around your upper arm. The cuff is attached to a machine called a sphygmomanometer, which measures your blood pressure through the cuff. The best way to get an accurate blood pressure reading is to take it while you are relaxed and sitting or lying down.

What do all the numbers mean?
Your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, for example 120/80. This is read out as “120 over 80”. The larger number is called your systolic blood pressure. This refers to the pressure in your arteries as your heart pushes the blood through on each beat. The smaller number is called your diastolic blood pressure, and this is the pressure in your arteries as the heart relaxes before the next beat.

Is my blood pressure healthy?
There is no ‘ideal’ blood pressure reading, however, the following clinical classifications for blood pressure in adults can be useful.

  • Normal
    Generally less than 120/80
  • High-normal
    Between 120/80 and 139/89
  • Mild high
    Between 140/90 and 159/99
  • Moderate high
    between 160/100 and 179/109
  • Severe high
    Equal to or greater than 180/110

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What is high blood pressure?
High blood pressure is when the pressure in your arteries is unhealthily high. There are different levels of high blood pressure, but all of them need to be treated. High blood pressure is anything over 140/85. It can cause serious issues such as heart attack, stroke, heart failure and kidney disease. You can have high blood pressure and feel perfectly well, as there are rarely any warning signs. High blood pressure is sometimes called ‘hypertension’.

What is low blood pressure?
Low blood pressure, or ‘hypotension’, is where there is not enough pressure in your arteries as your heart pumps blood around your body. Low blood pressure is more difficult to define, as someone may have seemingly low blood pressure, but be perfectly healthy. Low blood pressure is only a problem if you are experiencing symptoms, or if it is having a negative impact on your body. The symptoms of low blood pressure include:

  • light-headedness when standing from sitting or lying
  • unsteadiness
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • blurred vision
  • fatigue
  • fainting

My blood pressure is high. What can I do about it?
Smoking, drinking, having high cholesterol and being overweight all contribute to high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure you must work with your doctor to reduce it. If your blood pressure isn’t too high then you should be able to bring it down by making lifestyle changes. Don’t smoke, avoid excess fat and salt, lose any extra weight you are carrying, exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and keep your alcohol intake down. If you do drink alcohol men should limit themselves to two standard drinks per day, and women to one. If your blood pressure is quite high then you will probably need to start taking blood pressure medication, as well as making these lifestyle changes. If you are on blood pressure medication you should take it exactly as prescribed, and do not change the dose or stop taking it without first talking to your doctor.

My blood pressure is low. What can I do about it?
Low blood pressure can be caused by a number of different factors, and the treatment will depend on the cause. If you are taking medication which has lowered your blood pressure, such as medication for high blood pressure, antidepressants, or medication for certain heart conditions, then the dose will need to be altered. You should discuss this with your doctor. If your low blood pressure has been caused by internal bleeding, such as from a perforated stomach ulcer, then the ulcer will need to be sealed. Whatever the cause, your doctor will work with you to bring your blood pressure up to a healthy level.

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My blood pressure is normal. How can I keep it that way?
If your blood pressure is normal then there are a number of ways you can ensure it stays within the healthy range. Ensure you have your blood pressure checked regularly – every two years if it has not been high previously, and you do not have a family history of high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack. Don’t smoke, keep your weight healthy, exercise regularly (a brisk daily walk should do the trick), if you drink alcohol don’t consume more than two standard drinks per day, and eat healthily. Don’t add salt to your food, eat low-salt foods generally (the less processed, the better), avoid fat and include plenty of cereals, fish, fruits and vegetables in your diet.

How often should I have my blood pressure checked?
If your blood pressure is ‘normal’ and you have no other risk factors for heart disease and no family history of high blood pressure, then a check every two years should be sufficient. If your blood pressure is in the higher range, or if you have other risk factors for heart disease or a family history of high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack, you should have it checked more frequently. Your doctor will be able to advise you on an appropriate number of checks per year. If you have low blood pressure then you will be working with your doctor until you get it back to normal again, so your doctor will be able to advise you on the frequency of your checks.

To find out more about blood pressure you can read Blood pressure explained at the Better Health Channel website.