What do blood pressure numbers mean?

What do blood pressure numbers mean?

We all know that doctors and nurses are very interested in blood pressure and take it at every given opportunity - and that in general the world wants us to lower it - but what IS blood pressure, what do the numbers actually indicate, and how do you take control of them?

Here’s our quick guide to some key blood pressure questions.

What is blood pressure?

Your heart beats to push blood around your body. Your blood takes oxygen and energy to your organs. As it does so, it’s pushing through your blood vessels, and the strength of that push against the walls is what we call blood pressure.

What is high blood pressure?

If your blood pressure is too high, the push puts a strain on your arteries and your heart. It’s also known as hypertension.

Why is high blood pressure bad?

It can lead to strokes, heart attacks and a whole host of other health problems.

According to Blood Pressure UK, high blood pressure is the third biggest risk factor for all disease in the UK after smoking and poor diet.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

That’s the problem - high blood pressure usually doesn’t have noticeable symptoms. The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked.

How common is high blood pressure?

According to the NHS, 1 in 4 adults in the UK have high blood pressure – but many won’t even realise it.

Who’s likely to have high blood pressure?

It’s not always clear who’s at risk of getting high blood pressure, but your risk increases if you’re overweight, if you’re a smoker, if you have a lot of stress in your life, if you eat too much salt or drink too much alcohol/caffeine, have a generally poor diet, or don’t move around very much.

People over 65 are also at higher risk, as are those with high blood pressure in the family - and those of black African or Caribbean descent. Some medications can also increase your risk of developing high blood pressure.

Who should get a blood pressure test?

Everyone over 40 should get their blood pressure checked at least once every five years.

How is blood pressure tested?

Blood pressure tests are usually done with a machine that has a special cuff attached. That’s the bit that goes on your upper arm. It fills up with air and squeezes so it can measure how strongly your blood is pushing through your blood vessels.

The squeeze can feel slightly uncomfortable, but shouldn’t hurt. At the end, the machine will take a reading that appears as two numbers, one above the other.

What do blood pressure numbers actually mean?

The first or top number you see is your systolic pressure.  Systolic pressure is the pressure of your heart pushing out blood.

The second or bottom number is your diastolic pressure. Diastolic pressure is the pressure when your heart rests between beats.

The actual measurement is in millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and will be read out as “120 over 80”.

What’s a ‘normal’ number, and what’s a high number?

Normal blood pressure is considered to be between 90/60 mmHg and 120/80mmHg.

High blood pressure is considered to be 140/90mmHG or higher.

Low blood pressure is anything 90/60mmHg or lower.

What is low blood pressure?

Low blood pressure isn’t generally considered as dangerous as high blood pressure, but it can cause dizziness, nausea, weakness, and fainting.

How much do my numbers really matter?

Each 2mmHg rise in systolic blood pressure is associated with a 7% increased risk of death from coronary heart disease, and a 10% increased risk of death from stroke.

So knowing your numbers and staying in control of them really is important.

How do I get my blood pressure checked?

If you’re worried, the first step would be to go to your GP to get a blood pressure check. There are home monitoring kits, but these are more for people who have an identified problem to help them keep on top of it day to day.

How is high blood pressure treated?

There are lots of different medications to treat high blood pressure, that work in different ways and will be suitable for different patients. Some work to relax blood vessels, some widen blood vessels, others are diuretics that help flush through water and salt. Things like beta blockers can also be used to make your heart beat slower and with less force.

Many of these medications will come with side effects, and may have to be taken for life, so it’s important to work with your doctor to find the right kind and level of medication you need. It’s also important to take your medication regularly – even if you start to feel better.

Before medication though, there are lots of lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce and control your blood pressure too.

How can you prevent high blood pressure?

Preventing or controlling your blood pressure involves all of the normal and boring things doctors want us to do for our general health – but they really can make a difference.

1. Reduce your salt intake.
You should have less than a teaspoon of salt in your diet a day. That means not adding it to meals, but also avoiding salty foods like bacon and pepperoni, and looking for hidden salt in sauces and pre-packaged food and snacks.

2. Eat a healthy diet.
Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and watch your portion control.

3. Keep to a healthy weight.
Losing weight can help many people get their blood pressure down to a normal level.

4. Move more.
Being active not only helps you lose weight but helps your circulation and exercises your heart muscles. Typically, adults should try for 150 minutes of moderate activity a week – but check with your doctor first if you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

5. Cut down on alcohol and caffeine.
Sorry! both are bad for your heart. Try cutting down, or going for low alcohol or low caffeine options.

6. Stop smoking.
The chemicals in cigarettes make the walls of your arteries sticky and can start to clog them up – and that’s going to impact your blood pressure, and your heart health.

Further reading

NHS – high blood pressure
NHS – low blood pressure
British Heart Foundation
Blood Pressure UK
Blood Pressure UK – Facts
NHS inform