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High Blood Pressure: What Does it Mean?

Every time you go to the doctor, they wrap a little inflatable cuff around your upper arm, pump air into it, and squeeze your poor little bicep until it just about explodes. They're measuring your blood pressure, but how does it work?

The air is pumped until your circulation is cut off (you know, that uncomfortable feeling). When they place a stethoscope under the cuff, they can't hear anything. Then as the air is slowly let out of the cuff, blood begins to flow again and they can hear your blood pulsing.

This is the point of greatest pressure (called Systolic), and is usually expressed as how high it forces a column of mercury to rise in a tube (that's why they look at that little dial). 120 mm is about normal.

Then, as more and more air is let out of the cuff, the pressure exerted by the cuff is so little that the sound of the blood pulsing against the artery walls subsides and there is silence again. This is the point of lowest pressure (called Diastolic). 80 mm is normal.

Normal blood pressure is 120/80 (systolic/diastolic) or less. When both numbers start to go way up, you've got high blood pressure.

If you want to know why high blood pressure is called the "silent killer," then

Nearly 1 in 3 adults has high blood pressure, and there are no symptoms, so about 1/3 of them don't even know it. If you have high blood pressure, you could be at risk for having a stroke, heart attack, heart failure, or kidney failure. Yikes.

You may have high blood pressure because of your genetic make-up, stress or nerves (that's why they often take it again at the end of your appointment when you're more relaxed), obesity, diabetes, excessive alcohol use, or too much sodium in your diet.

Fit's Tips: I hate to sound like a broken record, but exercising, losing extra weight, and eating healthy are great ways to get your blood pressure under control. If you've done all this and your blood pressure is still high, your doctor may prescribe medication to lower it.

Join The Conversation
chibarosa chibarosa 10 years
My doctor says to not trust the BP machines at the grocery store because often you see kids playing with them and pushing buttons left and right...this alters the calibration so you don't get an accurate reading. I say this because if you check it and it's really high - don't freak out because it might not be correct.
ccsugar ccsugar 10 years
Butrfly, does your family have high BP, too? That could be it! Mine's always been low, last time I had it done was at our health fair at work (Being at work, I'm always stressed, I thought it would be a high reading!), plus I was on two cups of coffee, and it was STILL low! That's why I think a lot of it has to do w/genetics.
Fitness Fitness 10 years
Butrfly - IBS and high blood pressure can be stress related, so it's not your fault. Just think about ways you can relax and not think about what's stressing you out. If you know that these "stressors" can be resolved, then you should focus on them. It'll settle your mind. I would check your blood pressure again though, since you said you've never had a problem with it before. I had high blood pressure for years, and then it went away. So don't stress about it.
Butrfly4404 Butrfly4404 10 years
When I went to the doctor a couple weeks ago, the nurse said my BP was a little high, but that some people just get a little nervous at the doc. ...So, why has it never been high at the doctor before? Not even when I was pregnant, not even during a TRAGEDY at the doctor? I should have been more proactive and asked her to take it again, but I made SO MUCH progress with everything else I made the doctor talk to me about, I didn't want to push. I think I'm going to check it at the grocery store tonight, though. How scary...I'm only 24. I'm not that overweight. Just stressed. And maybe too much sodium. She also said I'm probably developing IBS because my stomach is always in knots. Wow, when I put it in writing I feel like an idiot for not taking better care of myself.
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