Blood Pressure Basics: What Do Those Numbers Mean?

blood pressure

Every time we visit a doctor or go to an emergency room, we get our vital signs and blood pressure checked. We all know that high blood pressure can cause serious problems like stroke, heart failure, heart attacks, and kidney failure. But when the medical assistant gives you a reading of “140 over 90” or “119 over 79,” do you know what those numbers mean?

No, these aren’t math fractions you must solve. Each number has a specific meaning that reflects the amount of force in relation to your blood and heart. If you’re not quite sure how to interpret the numbers from your reading, you can start right here by learning the basics of blood pressure:

What is Blood Pressure?

It is the force of your blood pushing against your arteries and is the mechanism by which blood is transported through your body. Healthy blood pressure ensures that your entire body is receiving the blood it needs to function, but it can also cause problems. People with high blood pressure are at risk of strokes because the pressure can cause blood vessels in the brain to burst or clog more easily. Likewise, it can damage the arteries around the kidneys and prevent them from effectively filtering blood. Low blood pressure also has serious side effects, leading to fainting, dizziness, and even heart attacks or kidney failure in severe cases.

What is Systolic Blood Pressure?

Systolic blood pressure is the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart is contracting. This is represented by the first number in your reading.

What is Diastolic Blood Pressure?

Diastolic blood pressure is the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest. Your diastolic pressure is the second number in your blood pressure reading.

What is the Range for Normal and High Blood Pressure?

If your reading is 119/79, you’re within normal range. But if you get a reading of 140/90 or above, your blood pressure is on the high side. You want your systolic pressure (the first number that is recited to you) to fall between 120 and 139, and your diastolic pressure (the second number in your reading) to fall between 80 and 89. However, if you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, you should try to keep your numbers below 130/80.

How Do You Prevent High Blood Pressure?

  • Limit the amount of sodium you consume.
  • Add more potassium to your diet.
  • Eat low fat foods like veggies, fruit, and whole grains.
  • Exercise regularly. Take a brisk walk for a half hour every day or engage in a one-hour high-intensity workout twice a week.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Find ways to de-stress through meditation, hiking, or engaging in hobbies.
  • Take blood pressure medicines as prescribed.

When to Go to the ER

If you have high blood pressure or know you are at risk, consider purchasing an inexpensive monitor for the home. Call a doctor whenever you get a reading over 140/90, but if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms or you get a reading higher than 180/110, go the ER:

  • Severe headache
  • Blurry vision
  • Heart attack symptoms like chest pain, sweating, and nausea.
  • Stroke symptoms like numbness, tingling, weakness, and vision changes.

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