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How to Understand Blood Pressure Readings

What do the numbers mean?

Everyone would like to have healthy blood pressure. But what exactly does that mean? When your doctor takes your blood pressure, it’s expressed as a measurement with two numbers, with one number on top (systolic) and one on the bottom (diastolic), like a fraction. For example, 120/80.

The top number refers to the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle. This is called systolic pressure. The bottom number refers to your blood pressure when your heart muscle is between beats. This is called diastolic pressure. Both numbers are important in determining the state of your heart health.

Numbers greater than the ideal range indicate that your heart is working too hard to pump blood to the rest of your body.

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Normal

What’s a normal reading?

For a normal reading, your blood pressure needs to show a top number (systolic pressure) that’s between 90 and 120 and a bottom number (diastolic pressure) that’s between 60 and 80. The American Heart Association (AHA) considers blood pressure to be within the normal range when both your systolic and diastolic numbers are in these ranges.

Blood pressure readings are expressed in millimeters of mercury. This unit is abbreviated as mm Hg. A normal reading would be any blood pressure below 120/80 mm Hg and above 90/60 mm Hg.

If you’re in the normal range, no medical intervention is needed. However, you should maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy weight to prevent hypertension from developing. Regular exercise and reduced salt intake can also help. You may need to be even more mindful of your lifestyle if hypertension runs in your family.

 

Prehypertension

Prehypertension

Numbers higher than 120/80 mm Hg are a red flag that you need to take on heart-healthy habits.

When your systolic (upper number) pressure is between 120 and 139 mm Hg or your diastolic (lower number) pressure is between 80 and 89 mm Hg, it means you have prehypertension.

Although these numbers aren’t technically considered high blood pressure, you’ve moved out of the normal range. Elevated blood pressure has a good chance of turning into actual high blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

No medications are necessary for prehypertension. But this is when you should adopt healthier lifestyle choices. A balanced diet and regular exercise can help lower your blood pressure to a healthy range and prevent prehypertension from developing into full-fledged hypertension.

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Stage 1

Hypertension: Stage 1

You’ll generally be diagnosed with high blood pressure if your systolic blood pressure reaches between 140 and 159 mm Hg, or if your diastolic blood pressure reaches between 90 and 99 mm Hg. This is considered stage 1 hypertension.

However, the AHA notes that if you get only one reading this high, you may not truly have high blood pressure. What determines the diagnosis of hypertension at any stage is if your numbers remain this high over a period of time.

Your doctor can help you measure and track your blood pressure to confirm whether it’s too high. You may need to start taking medications if your blood pressure doesn’t improve after one month of following a healthy lifestyle.

If you are 60 years or older and do not have a history of stroke, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, your doctor may not recommend treatment unless your BP is regularly greater than 150/90 mmHg.

Stage 2

Hypertension: Stage 2

Stage 2 high blood pressure indicates an even more serious condition. If your blood pressure reading shows a top number of 160 or more, or a bottom number of 100 or more, it’s considered stage 2 hypertension.

At this stage, your doctor will recommend one or more medications for keeping your blood pressure under control. But you should not rely solely on medications to treat hypertension. Lifestyle habits are just as important in stage 2 as they are in the other stages.

Some medications that can complement a healthy lifestyle include:

  • ACE inhibitors to relax blood vessels
  • alpha-blockers used for decreasing arterial resistance
  • beta-blockers to decrease heart rate and relax blood vessels
  • calcium channel blockers to relax blood vessels
  • diuretics to decrease the amount of fluid in your body, including your blood vessels
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Danger zone

Danger zone

A blood pressure reading above 180/110 mm Hg indicates a serious health problem. The AHA refers to these high measurements as a “hypertensive crisis.” Blood pressure in this range requires urgent treatment even if there are no accompanying symptoms.

You should seek emergency treatment if you have blood pressure in this range along with symptoms such as:

However, sometimes a high reading can occur and then your numbers will return to normal. If your blood pressure measures at this level, your doctor will likely take a second reading after a few minutes have passed. A second high reading indicates that you’ll need treatment either as soon as possible or immediately depending on whether or not you have any of the symptoms described above.

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Prevention

Preventive measures

Even if you have healthy numbers, you should take preventive measures to keep your blood pressure in the normal range. This will help you avoid developing hypertension or heart disease.

The following preventive measures can help lower or stave off high blood pressure:

  • Reduce your sodium intake. Ideally, you should not consume more than 2,300 mg per day. Adults who already have hypertension should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg.
  • Don’t add salt to your foods, which would increase your overall sodium intake.
  • Limit processed foods. Many of these foods are also low in nutritional value while also high in sodium.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake. Talk to your doctor to see if caffeine sensitivity plays a role in your blood pressure readings.
  • Exercise more often. Consistency is key in maintaining a healthy blood pressure reading. It’s better to exercise 30 minutes every day rather than a few hours only on the weekends.
  • Maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight if necessary. Losing even 10 pounds can make an impact on your blood pressure readings.
  • Manage your stress levels. Moderate exercise, yoga, or even 10-minute meditation sessions can help.
  • Reduce your alcohol intake. Depending on your situation, you may need to stop drinking altogether.
  • Quit or refrain from smoking.

As you age, prevention becomes even more important. Systolic pressure tends to creep up once you’re older than 50, according to the AHA. Certain health conditions, such as diabetes, may also play a role. Talk to your doctor about how you can manage your overall health to help prevent the onset of hypertension.

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Hypotension

Blood pressure that’s too low

Low blood pressure is known as hypotension. A blood pressure reading of 90/60 mm Hg or below is considered hypotension. This can be dangerous because blood pressure that is too low does not supply your body and heart with enough oxygenated blood. Some potential causes of hypotension can include:

Takeaway

Takeaway

Keeping your blood pressure in the normal range is crucial in preventing complications, such as heart disease and stroke. A combination of healthy lifestyle habits and medications can help lower your blood pressure. Weight loss is also important in keeping your numbers down.

Remember that a single blood pressure reading doesn’t necessarily classify your health. Blood pressure readings taken over time are the most accurate. That’s why it’s ideal to have your blood pressure taken by a healthcare professional at least once a year, or more often if your readings are high.

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