Understanding Blood Pressure

Every single time I’ve sat on an examining table, I’ve had my blood pressure taken. Each time I’m complimented on my low blood pressure and every single time, I think to myself, “smile and act like you understand. You should know this by now. Oh my gosh, what is my blood type?! I never was any good at fractions…”

It’s ridiculous. I should know what those numbers mean.

Having an ostomy and the complications that have been a part of my journey land me in the exam room more often than I’d like. Recently it was for abdominal pain. An ER visit, CT scan and hefty co-pay later and no answers. That, and I still don’t understand what my blood pressure reading was.

I decided to GOOGLE it and commit to understanding it once and for all.

Courtesy of the American Heart Association, here’s what I’ve found:

Couple On Computer

Blood pressure is typically recorded as two numbers, written as a ratio like this:

HBP Reading With Systolic And Diastolic Graphic ReadingRead as “117 over 76 millimeters of mercury” 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).
DiastolicThe 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).

This chart reflects blood pressure categories defined by the American Heart Association.

Blood Pressure
mm Hg (upper #)
mm Hg (lower #)
Normal less than 120 and less than 80
Prehypertension 120139 or 8089
High Blood Pressure
(Hypertension) Stage 1
140159 or 9099
High Blood Pressure
(Hypertension) Stage 2
160 or higher or 100 or higher
Hypertensive Crisis
(Emergency care needed)
Higher than 180 or Higher than 110

* Your doctor should evaluate unusually low blood pressure readings.

Which number is more important, top (systolic) or bottom (diastolic)?

Typically more attention is given to the top number (the systolic blood pressure) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50 years old. In most people, systolic blood pressure rises steadily with age due to increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term build-up of plaque, and increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease.

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