Understanding your blood pressure reading

Family Health
Nov 15, 2018

When you have your blood pressure checked, the reading comes back as two numbers presented similar to that as a fraction. For example, 115/70 (spoken as 115 over 70). But what do these numbers mean, and how do you know if they point to high blood pressure?

“It’s important that a patient understands what the number  means, how it impacts them and why they may need to perform an intervention, such as diet, watching their sodium or their weight, so that they, in addition to their physician, can track their own changes,” says Carol Barbee, RN, MSN, APRN-FNP, WellPath Navigator at St. Joseph’s/Candler.

Carol Barbee, WellPath Navigator at St. Joseph’s/CandlerRelated Article: Here’s what you should look for when selecting a new primary care physician 

Here is a quick guide to understanding your blood pressure readings and what to do if your blood pressure is too high or too low.

Systolic and diastolic pressure

When medical professionals check your blood pressure, they are looking for two types of pressure, represented by the two numbers.

Your systolic pressure, represented by the top number of the reading, is the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart muscle is contracting, forcing blood through your circulatory system.

Your diastolic pressure, denoted by the number on the bottom, is the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest, between beats.

Both numbers are important in determining whether your blood pressure is at a healthy level. Generally speaking, a normal blood pressure range is when the systolic pressure is below 120 and the diastolic pressure is below 80.

When these numbers are in a higher range than these thresholds, blood pressure is considered to be elevated (120-129 and less than 80) to high (anything greater than 130 and 80). If systolic exceeds 180 and/or diastolic exceeds 110, it is considered a hypertension emergency requiring immediate care.

What if my blood pressure is too high?

If one or both of your blood pressure numbers are higher than what is considered normal, but not a hypertension emergency, there’s no immediate need to panic. Blood pressure can fluctuate within minutes and can spike due to exertion or stress. If you numbers remain elevated over a period of time, however, your doctor may recommend taking steps to lower your blood pressure readings.

To improve an elevated or high blood pressure reading, your doctor may recommend:

  • Reduce sodium intake
  • Limit or eliminate alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Stop smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Lose excess weight
  • Prescribed blood pressure medication

“One of the easiest ways to reduce high blood pressure is to lower your sodium intake,” Barbee says. “Look for hidden sources of sodium, such as ketchup, mustard, lunch meats, processed sauces, canned soups and vegetables.”

Barbee recommends counting your daily sodium intake and keep it under 2,000 milligrams a day.

What if my blood pressure is too low?

Your blood pressure also can be too low. A low blood pressure can leave you feeling light headed, weak, nauseous and even affect your ability to function.

The best thing to do to get your blood pressure back to a normal reading is hydrate. Water is always best but if you have been experiencing any vomiting and/or diarrhea, Gatorade or PowerAde can help improve your electrolyte volume, in turn bringing your blood pressure back up, Barbee says.

Where can I get my blood pressure checked?

Your primary care physician will check your blood pressure during your annual visit. You can also have it checked more often than that at your local pharmacy or your neighborhood fire station.

“Don’t ignore annual visits with your physician just because your think you are eating healthy and exercising,” Barbee says. “You can’t ignore what you inherit from your family. You can’t change some of the disease factors that come with our race or ethnic heritage. What you can change is how often you exercise, your eating habits and your tobacco decisions.”

If you currently do not have a primary care physician, visit our Primary Care webpage to find one near you. 

Related Article: Do you know your numbers? Here’s an explanation of common lab work results. 

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