Blood pressure quick guide: What to know before you see the doc

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A blood pressure reading lets your doctor know how hard your heart is working to pump blood throughout...

A blood pressure reading lets your doctor know how hard your heart is working to pump blood throughout your body. Before you head to the doctor, know what the two little numbers in a BP reading mean. The American Heart Association recommends getting regular BP screenings at least once every two years, starting at age 20.

About the numbers: Systolic and diastolic

At the doctor's office, a nurse or physician's assistant usually performs BP readings. If you have a needle phobia, don't worry. No blood will be drawn. After the nurse secures a cloth cuff to your bare arm, the cuff will tighten and squeeze your skin. In just a few moments, you will hear your BP reading, a set of two numbers read as a fraction.

The first number is your systolic reading. This is the amount of pressure against your arteries while your heart contracts or beats. The second, or bottom number in a BP reading, is the diastolic number. This number should be the lower of the two numbers since it indicates BP in your arteries while the heart is at rest. A normal, healthy BP reading for an adult is around 115/75 to 120/80.

High BP

If you're overweight, eat high-cholesterol, artery-clogging foods or aren't very physically active, your heart has to work harder and faster to move blood throughout your body. This causes high blood pressure. There are four levels of high pressure that your doctor may discuss.

Pre-hypertension: This is a warning of increasing pressure. If your systolic BP is 120-139 and your diastolic BP is 80-89, it's time to evaluate your lifestyle. Ask you doctor about revamping your exercise routine or how to make healthier dietary decisions.

Hypertension stage 1: If your systolic BP is 140-159 and your diastolic BP is 90-99, it's time to evaluate your lifestyle. Your high BP is slowly elevating into a dangerous level. To keep it steady, or lower your BP, adopt an exercise program and eat a healthy, whole foods diet. That means no more fast food or soda and limiting your time spent behind a plate of southern fried chicken.

Hypertension stage 2: BP readings of 160/100 or higher are an immediate medical concern. Your doctor will suggest BP-lowering medications and frequent checkups to monitor your condition. Talk with a nutritionist about your diet, and ask your doctor about starting a low-impact exercise program, such as walking 30 minutes each day.

Critical condition: If your BP reading is higher than 180/110, you need immediate, critical care. You risk having a heart attack or stroke or may be suffering a blockage in your arteries. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Once you're stabilized, a physician will recommend several medications and lifestyle changes to improve your health.

Lowering high BP

High BP isn't always caused by an unhealthy diet or lack of exercise. Medical conditions, stress and medications can also cause your heart to work harder, giving a high BP reading. Your physician will monitor your BP over time to see if the elevation is a one-time incident or a trend.

If you know the cause of your high BP is temporary, such as the stress of a divorce or exams at school, seek ways to naturally calm yourself. Consider joining a yoga class, starting a new hobby or writing in a journal. An outlet for your stress can instantly and naturally lower your BP.

Low BP

Having a BP reading below 90/60 can also be a concern. Extremely low BP, also called hypotension, isn't healthy and often causes dizziness, blurred vision, nausea and fainting, according to the Mayo Clinic. Causes of low BP include the following:

  • Dehydration
  • Excessive heat exposure
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Severe infections
  • Allergic reactions
  • Heart problems
  • Pregnancy
  • Thyroid problems
  • Low blood sugars
  • Poor nutrition
  • Medications

Regulating low BP

Although elevating your pressure may be as easy as having your doctor change your medications, for others it isn't as simple. Increasing sodium intake, eating small meals several times each day, drinking more water and lying down can help elevate BP numbers.

Ask your doctor about healthy, safe ways to increase your sodium and water intake. For example, adding sea salt to fresh vegetables--not drinking more soda--is a great way to add salt to your diet. Too much sodium can cause heart problems. To get more water into your diet, consider having a broth-based soup with your meals; eating produce with high-water content such as watermelon, cucumbers or celery; and drinking herbal or green tea.

So, are you ready to learn what your BP reading is? Call an Atlanta-area physician to schedule an appointment. After taking the reading, the doctor will give immediate results and suggest how to maintain, lower or elevate your BP.

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