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Blood pressure is one of the four major vital signs, along with heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. These vital signs can help give a general idea of a person’s overall health.

Changes in a person’s vital signs can indicate an underlying health problem or a need to make lifestyle changes.

The typical way to measure blood pressure is using a sphygmomanometer, or blood pressure monitor, which consists of a measuring unit and a cuff. If a person uses a manual device, they will also need a stethoscope.

People can buy a blood pressure machine to use at home or visit a doctor or pharmacy for testing.

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Blood pressure is the term for the amount of force that the blood places on the blood vessels in the body. A blood pressure reading includes two numbers that indicate the pressure inside the arteries as the blood flows through the body.

The upper number, called the systolic pressure, measures the pressure inside the arteries as the heart contracts to pump blood. The lower number, called the diastolic pressure, is the pressure inside the arteries as the heart rests between beats.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), normal blood pressure is anything below 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Higher measurements often indicate that the heart is working too hard in pumping blood through the arteries.

High blood pressure can occur due to many factors, including:

Accurate blood pressure readings are important, as high blood pressure often causes no symptoms. Some symptoms, such as a headache, may occur if blood pressure reaches or exceeds 180/120 mm Hg. At this point, the person may be experiencing a hypertensive crisis, which is severe hypertension requiring urgent medical care.

Doctors use either electronic or mechanical machines to measure blood pressure in a clinic. In some cases, they may recommend monitoring and recording blood pressure at home.

Monitoring blood pressure at home usually requires a machine that insurance may or may not cover. A doctor may recommend monitoring blood pressure at home if a person needs to know their blood pressure at specific times of the day or after taking certain medications.

It is possible to take blood pressure without using a machine, but it is more difficult.

How can Medicare help with monitoring blood pressure?

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To check blood pressure without the aid of an automated machine, a person will need several medical items:

  • a stethoscope
  • a blood pressure cuff with a squeezable balloon
  • an aneroid monitor with a numbered dial to read the measurements

A person who wishes to check their blood pressure manually should ensure that they select the correct size of manual cuff to get the most accurate reading. They can then follow these steps:

  • sit in a relaxed position with the arm at rest on a table
  • secure the cuff around the bicep so that it cannot move but is not tight
  • squeeze the balloon to increase the pressure
  • watch the aneroid monitor and increase the pressure to 20–30 mm Hg higher than usual blood pressure
  • after inflating the cuff, place the stethoscope just inside the elbow crease under the cuff
  • slowly deflate the balloon and listen to the sounds, known as Korotkoff sounds, through the stethoscope
  • note the number on the aneroid monitor when the first sound occurs, as this is systolic pressure
  • continue listening until the steady heartbeat sound stops
  • at this point, record the number from the aneroid monitor, which is the diastolic pressure

Doctors often use this type of monitor, as it is more accurate than a digital monitor. However, it can be more difficult for people to use at home.

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The easiest and most accurate way to measure blood pressure at home is to buy an automated blood pressure monitor with an upper arm cuff.

The instructions for use may vary among machines, and a person should follow them carefully to ensure proper operation. If the instructions are difficult to understand, a local pharmacy or doctor’s office will be able to show a person how to operate the machine correctly.

Doctors may ask a person to bring their at-home machine to the office during their next visit to compare it with the doctor’s reading and give an idea of accuracy.

Using a high quality machine is important. Inaccurate readings can be misleading if they are too low or cause unnecessary stress if they are too high. If a person is checking their blood pressure at home as part of a treatment plan, inaccurate readings could lead to harmful changes in medications or treatments.

People can buy a blood pressure monitor for home use here, but it may be a good idea to ask a doctor which brand they recommend.

Apps and wrist devices are available that claim to measure blood pressure, but experts warn that these are often of poor quality. As a result, the readings may be inaccurate. They are not a reliable way to monitor a person’s health.

However, apps that log blood pressure results may be helpful for people who need to take regular blood pressure tests. Recording a set of readings in these apps may help doctors identify trends in blood pressure and recommend treatments.

Learn about some of the apps available.

Blood pressure readings fall into the following categories:

Blood pressure statusSystolic pressure (mm Hg)Diastolic pressure (mm Hg)
Normalless than 120less than 80
Elevated120–129less than 80
Stage 1 high blood pressure (hypertension)130–13980–89
Stage 2 high blood pressure140 or higher90 or higher
Hypertensive crisis (seek immediate medical attention)higher than 180higher than 120

Normal blood pressure is anything below 120/80 mm Hg. However, a healthy number can vary among individuals.

The numbers may change based on various factors, such as:

  • weight
  • physical activity levels
  • stress levels
  • underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes

Some people’s blood pressure is higher when they are in a healthcare setting rather than going about their daily life. Doctors may refer to this phenomenon as white coat hypertension.

Anyone uncertain about their target blood pressure should speak with a doctor for guidance.

They should also do this if several readings show that their blood pressure is higher than usual.

Medical advice is also necessary for people who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy, as some types of hypertension can put both the pregnant person and the fetus at risk.

Anyone who experiences a systolic pressure higher than 180 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure over 120 mm Hg should seek emergency medical care, as this is a sign of a hypertensive crisis.

When checking blood pressure at home, it is important that a person is:

  • placing the cuff directly on bare skin on the upper arm
  • taking a few deep breaths and relaxing for up to 5 minutes before measuring blood pressure
  • avoiding talking during the test
  • placing the feet flat on the floor and sitting up straight while measuring blood pressure
  • avoiding checking blood pressure in a cold room
  • supporting the arm as close to heart level as possible
  • measuring the blood pressure at a few different times during the day
  • avoiding exercising, smoking, and drinking caffeine or alcohol for 30 minutes before taking a blood pressure reading
  • emptying the bladder before taking a blood pressure test, as a full bladder may give an incorrect blood pressure reading
  • taking several readings 1 minute apart, as readings can vary

People should check with a doctor which arm to use to take blood pressure if they have:

  • lymphedema
  • muscular weakness, known as paresis, in one arm
  • paralysis in an arm
  • a line into their veins, such as a catheter
  • had a mastectomy on one side
  • recent surgical wounds on one side
  • a dialysis shunt in one arm

These conditions and factors can increase the risk of adverse effects, such as swelling due to lymphedema.

It may be necessary to use the other arm or place the cuff around the calf instead.

Various blood pressure monitors are available for home use.

The tests that people take at home may not be as accurate as those that the doctor takes, but automated blood pressure monitors for home use can give an idea of whether a person’s blood pressure is within an acceptable range.

Anyone concerned about their blood pressure readings should seek guidance from a doctor on the best ways to monitor and manage their blood pressure.

Often, lifestyle choices can help manage high blood pressure. Examples include exercise, dietary choices, and stress management strategies. In some cases, a doctor may also prescribe medications.

Monitoring blood pressure at home can help a person know whether they need to seek medical help for hypertension. It can also help a doctor decide whether to adjust a person’s medications.