The blood pressure usually is measured with a small, portable instrument called a blood pressure cuff (sphygmomanometer). (Sphygmo is Greek for pulse, and a manometer measures pressure.) The blood pressure cuff consists of an air pump, a pressure gauge, and a rubber cuff. The instrument measures the blood pressure in units called millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
The cuff is placed around the upper arm and inflated with an air pump to a pressure that blocks the flow of blood in the main artery (brachial artery) that travels through the arm. The arm is then extended at the side of the body at the level of the heart, and the pressure of the cuff on the arm and artery is gradually released. As the pressure in the cuff decreases, a health practitioner listens with a stethoscope over the artery at the front of the elbow. The pressure at which the practitioner first hears a pulsation from the artery is the systolic pressure (the top number). As the cuff pressure decreases further, the pressure at which the pulsation finally stops is the diastolic pressure (the bottom number).
How is high blood pressure defined?
Blood pressure can be affected by several factors, so it is important to standardize the environment when blood pressure is measured. For at least one hour before blood pressure is taken, avoid eating, strenuous exercise (which can lower blood pressure), smoking, and caffeine intake. Other stresses may alter the blood pressure and need to be considered when blood pressure is measured.
Even though most insurance companies consider high blood pressure to be 140/90 and higher for the general population, these levels may not be appropriate cut-offs for all individuals. Many experts in the field of hypertension view blood pressure levels as a range, from lower levels to higher levels. Such a range implies there are no clear or precise cut-off values to separate normal blood pressure from high blood pressure. Individuals with so-called pre-hypertension (defined as a blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89) may benefit from lowering of blood pressure by life style modification and possibly medication especially if there are other risk factors for end-organ damage such as diabetes or kidney disease (life style changes are discussed below).
For some people, blood pressure readings lower than 140/90 may be a more appropriate normal cut-off level. For example, in certain situations, such as in patients with long duration (chronic) kidney diseases that spill (lose) protein into the urine (proteinuria), the blood pressure is ideally kept at 130/80, or even lower. The purpose of reducing the blood pressure to this level in these patients is to slow the progression of kidney damage. Patients with diabetes (diabetes mellitus) may also benefit from blood pressure that is maintained at a level lower than 130/80. In addition, African Americans, who have an increased risk for developing the complications of hypertension, may decrease this risk by reducing their systolic blood pressure to less than 135 and the diastolic blood pressure to 80 mm Hg or less.
In line with the thinking that the risk of end-organ damage from high blood pressure represents a continuum, statistical analysis reveals that beginning at a blood pressure of 115/75 the risk of cardiovascular disease doubles with each increase in blood pressure of 20/10. This type of analysis has led to an ongoing "rethinking" in regard to who should be treated for hypertension, and what the goals of treatment should be.
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