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Decoding your blood pressure numbers

When you visit Indigo for care, you can expect one of our friendly medical assistants to take your blood pressure and share the results. But do you really know the meaning behind those two numbers?

A national study found that 64 percent of Americans were confident they understand what blood pressure numbers mean, but only 39 percent knew what normal or healthy blood pressure is.

A blood pressure test is more than a medical visit formality. It’s a simple and painless way to learn critical information about your heart health. Understanding what your numbers mean can help you know and lower your health risks. 


What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Most of that pressure comes from your heart pumping blood through your circulatory system.  

When that force is consistently too high, it can damage arteries over time and lead to serious health issues, such as heart attack and stroke. This common condition is called high blood pressure or hypertension.

If your blood pressure drops too low, it can reduce the amount of blood flowing to your heart, brain and other parts of the body. Low blood pressure, or hypotension, can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe.


What do blood pressure numbers mean? 

Blood pressure is made up of two numbers: 

  1. The first number is your systolic score, which indicates how hard your heart is working when it’s pumping blood into your arteries.
  2. The second number is your diastolic score, which measures the pressure in your arteries between heart beats as your heart relaxes.

Blood pressure is measured with a sphygmomanometer, which includes an inflatable cuff, a meter to measure air pressure in the cuff, and a stethoscope to listen to the sound the blood makes as it flows through the artery. 

Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  • The blood pressure cuff is wrapped around your arm and inflated, which cuts off blood flow through the artery.
  • As the cuff slowly deflates, there is a “whooshing” sound that comes when the blood starts to flow again. The number that registers on the pressure meter at that moment is your systolic rating.
  • As the cuff deflates more, the whooshing sound stops. The number on the pressure meter at that point is your diastolic number.

Both systolic and diastolic numbers are indicators of heart health and your risk of stroke or heart disease. Most studies show that higher systolic pressure indicates a greater risk of future cardiovascular events, especially in adults 50 and older. But according to recent research, elevated diastolic blood pressure is an important factor, particularly in younger adults under the age of 50.


What is considered a normal blood pressure score?

Blood pressure guidelines were updated in 2017 based on a review of hundreds of studies by the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology and other professional health organizations. 

Blood pressure categories in these guidelines are:

  • Normal blood pressure: 120/80 or lower
  • Elevated blood pressures: 10-129/80. Formerly called “prehypertension,” elevated blood pressure can turn into high blood pressure if ignored.
  • High blood pressure (stage 1): 130-139 for systolic or 80-89 for diastolic
  • High blood pressure (stage 2): 140 or above for systolic or 90 or above for diastolic.
  • Hypertensive emergency: Over 180/120

Blood pressure that is lower than normal happens when your reading is lower than 90/60.


What are the causes and symptoms of high blood pressure?

High blood pressure happens when the pressure in your arteries is higher than it should be.

About 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure. And we’re not just talking about older folks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high blood pressure affects 1 in 5 adults ages 18-39.  

There is not typically one single cause for high blood pressure, but there are some combined factors that can increase your risk of high blood pressure, including:

  • Family history of high blood pressure.
  • Extra weight.
  • Lack of physical exercise.
  • Race/ethnicity. About 55 percent of Black adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure.
  • Being over the age of 55. Arteries get stiffer with age, which causes blood pressure to go up.
  • Gender. Men typically have higher blood pressure and develop cardiovascular diseases earlier than women.
  • Certain medical conditions, including chronic kidney disease, thyroid disease and obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Tobacco use.
  • Recreational drug use.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Eating an unhealthy diet that includes foods high in sodium.

Most people who have high blood pressure have no symptoms. That’s why the condition is often called the “silent killer.” When left untreated, high blood pressure can be dangerous and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

In most cases, the only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked regularly.


What are the causes and signs of low blood pressure?

Low blood pressure can happen to anyone, but it seems to be more common as you get older. It’s estimated that 5 percent of people have low blood pressure at the age of 50. That figure climbs to more than 30 percent in people over the age of 70. 

In healthy adults, low blood pressure usually isn’t a cause for concern. It’s even common among athletes and people who are very physically active. Studies show that a very fit person who exercises regularly will have a lower resting blood pressure than someone who is sedentary. 

Causes of lower-than-normal blood pressure can be wide ranging. They may include:

  • Standing up too quickly from a sitting position.
  • Dehydration, which can contribute to low blood volume.
  • Certain health conditions, including heart and lung issues, thyroid disease, severe infection or nerve damage.
  • Trauma, such as major bleeding or bad burns.
  • Certain prescription medications, including those used to manage heart failure, high blood pressure, depression and erectile dysfunction.
  • Alcohol or recreational drug use.
  • Pregnancy. A drop in blood pressure is common during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Extreme temperatures. Being too hot or too cold can affect and worsen low blood pressure.


While most people with low blood pressure don’t have any symptoms, there are some signs to watch for, including:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Cold, clammy skin.
  • Rapid and shallow breathing.
  • Fatigue, weakness or sleepiness.
  • Confusion.
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Rapid heart rate.

You should see a health care clinician if you have any of the above symptoms – especially if you have repeated dizziness or episodes of fainting.


How can I prevent abnormal blood pressure?

There are some simple steps you can take to maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

The best way to avoid high blood pressure is to:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet. A heart-healthy diet includes vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, and olive oil.
  • Cut back on sodium. The average American takes in about 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 2,300 per day. Ultra-processed foods are especially high in sodium.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 1 drink per day for men and 2 drinks per day for men. If you need help cutting back, the CDC offers guidelines on how to start drinking less.
  • Avoid tobacco use. Smoking or vaping are bad for your blood vessels and heart. And quitting can bring fast results. A recent study showed that after 12 weeks, people who quit smoking had lower blood pressure than when they were smoking.
  • Exercise regularly. Don’t be intimidated by starting an exercise program. A 30-minute walk five days a week can help lower blood pressure. You can also opt for physical activity that brings you joy, like swimming, yoga or dancing.
  • Manage stress levels. Stress may not directly cause high blood pressure, but it can cause your blood pressure to spike temporarily and put you at risk for hypertension.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Even losing a few pounds can help manage blood pressure in people who are overweight. Talk with a health care clinician about a safe and healthy approach to weight loss.

Reducing your risk of low blood pressure is a little trickier. If you have hypotension, a health care clinician  can make recommendations based on your specific symptoms. 


How do I know if I have abnormal blood pressure?

Measuring your blood pressure is the only way to know if it’s up, down or normal. That’s why a blood pressure check is a routine part of any health care visit.

If you are 20 years or older and have normal blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends that you have your blood pressure checked at least once a year during your regular preventive health care visit. 

If you’re concerned you may have high or low blood pressure but don’t have severe symptoms, Indigo can check your numbers and evaluate your risks. When needed, our clinicians can also offer recommendations about treatment options and lifestyle changes to lower your risks and get your numbers back on track. And if you need a higher level of care, we’ll refer you to a specialist.

At Indigo, you don’t have to wait to get the health information and care you need. Just walk into one of our convenient locations or book a same-day or next-day appointment online to save a spot. You can also schedule a face-to-face Indigo Virtual Care appointment with one of our clinicians to discuss your symptoms, ways to manage your blood pressure at home, or other minor health concerns you may have.

In person and virtually, we’re here 8 am to 8 pm every day, including weekends. 

Seek emergency care or call 911 if you or a loved one has a blood pressure reading of 180/120 or higher and any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe headache.
  • Confusion.
  • Change in consciousness.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Chest pain.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Severe anxiety.
  • Stroke symptoms, including sudden weakness or numbness, sudden confusion, vision problems, slurred speech or difficulty speaking. Regardless of your blood pressure reading, you should always call 911 for any of these symptoms.

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