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Blood Pressure

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of blood against artery walls as the heart pumps blood through the body. Blood pressure can go up with exercise, stress, pain, or strong emotions. Drinking alcohol or using some illegal drugs, like cocaine, can also raise blood pressure. Blood pressure goes down when you are resting, asleep, or feeling calm and relaxed.

How is blood pressure measured?

The only way to find out if your blood pressure is normal, too high, or too low is to have it measured. Your healthcare provider measures blood pressure using an inflatable cuff around your upper arm and either a stethoscope or a machine that shows the result.

  • Low blood pressure usually means blood pressure that is lower than 90/60 or is low enough to cause symptoms. The first, upper number (90 in this example) is the pressure when the heart beats and pushes blood out to the rest of the body. The second, lower number (60 in this example) is the pressure when the heart rests between beats. Low blood pressure is less common than high blood pressure.
  • Normal resting blood pressure ranges up to 120/80 (“120 over 80”).
  • Borderline high blood pressure is 120/80 or higher but less than 140/90.
  • High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher for most people.
    • If you have diabetes, 140/80 is considered high blood pressure.
    • If you have chronic kidney disease, 130/80 or higher is considered high blood pressure.

Why is high blood pressure a problem?

Over time, if your blood pressure rises and stays high, it can damage your blood vessels, heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes even though you may have no symptoms. The higher your blood pressure is, the more it increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious medical problems.

If you have high blood pressure, lowering it and keeping it normal can help prevent a heart attack or stroke. Keeping your blood pressure under control can help prevent long-term health problems as well, such as heart failure, kidney failure, and blindness.

How can I keep my blood pressure at the right level?

If your blood pressure is too high, your provider may recommend lifestyle changes to help you lower your blood pressure, such as:

  • Lose excess weight. If you are overweight, losing even 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
  • Use less salt (sodium) in your food. Check the levels of sodium listed on food labels. Most of the sodium you eat can be hidden in processed foods such as chips, crackers, canned or boxed foods, fast food or restaurant food.
  • Follow a healthy eating plan that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Eat only enough calories to reach or keep a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider about how many calories you should eat each day.
  • Be physically active. Your provider can give you a physical activity plan that tells you what kind of activity and how much is safe for you.
  • Find ways to relax and to manage stress.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to quit smoking.
  • If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink.
  • Be careful with nonprescription medicines or herbal supplements. Some can raise blood pressure. This includes diet pills, cold and pain medicines, and energy drinks. Read labels or ask your pharmacist if the medicine or supplement affects blood pressure.
  • If lifestyle changes don’t lower your blood pressure enough, your healthcare provider may prescribe one or more types of blood pressure medicine. Always follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for taking medicine. Don’t take more or less medicine or stop taking a medicine without talking to your provider first. It can be dangerous to stop taking certain blood pressure medicines suddenly.

If you have low blood pressure that is causing symptoms, after your healthcare provider has seen you, try these tips:

  • Don’t skip meals. Eat a healthy diet.
  • Avoid being out in the heat for a long time or being too active.
  • Drink plenty of liquids every day, especially in hot weather or when you are working outside.
  • If you have been lying down, sit for a moment before standing up, and then stand up slowly. Stand a moment before walking. Walk in place briefly while pulling in your stomach muscles several times. (This helps the return of blood flow from the legs.)

If your blood pressure is normal, check it at least once a year. Your provider may recommend checking your blood pressure at home between checkups.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-03
Last reviewed: 2014-09-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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