When Your Blood Pressure Reading Is Abnormal

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Digital blood pressure monitor (sphygmomanometer)

For a long time, normal blood pressure was defined as 120/80 mm Hg (systolic/diastolic). Recently, however, the American Heart Association revised its guidelines about what an optimal blood pressure range is, and when blood pressure is considered too high or too low.

While 120/80 used to be considered normal, the new guidelines define three levels of abnormal blood pressure values.

  1. 120-139 / 80-89 is now considered to be “prehypertension” (or “almost high blood pressure”), and doctors are watching blood pressures in this range more carefully than in the past.
  2. 140/90 is the cutoff for Stage 1 Hypertension. Stage 1 Hypertension may or may not be treated with medicines, depending on lifestyle and other risk factors.
  3. Systolic pressures above 160, or diastolic pressures above 100, patients are classified as having Stage 2 Hypertension, a serious condition that warrants immediate medical treatment.

What Does the American Heart Association Recommend? 

The AHA has categorized blood pressure ranges to indicate various stages of hypertension: 

Blood Pressure Category Systolic Diastolic
Normal less than 120 and less than 80
Prehypertension 120 to 139 or 80 to 89
Stage 1 High Blood Pressure (hypertension) 140 to 159 or 90 to 99
Stage 2 High Blood Pressure (hypertension) 160 or higher or 100 or higher
Hypertensive crisis (requiring emergency care) Higher than 180 or Higher than 110

Systolic blood pressure is generally given more consideration for those 50 years and older because this number tends to rise steadily as people age due to decreased elasticity of arteries, a build-up of plaque in the arteries over years, and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in older age groups.

Is Your Blood Pressure Being Measured Correctly?

Accurate blood pressure measurements are essential for diagnosing and treating high blood pressure. A specific set of techniques and procedures have been developed for obtaining the most accurate blood pressure readings possible.

But research has shown that medical professionals often do not completely follow these guidelines. It is important for you as a patient to be able to identify when proper protocol is being followed, or not.

What If Your Blood Pressure Is High?

A single elevated reading is not usually enough to diagnose hypertension. Rather, a high blood pressure reading may prompt your doctor to take several more over time to see whether there is a trend or ask you to monitor your blood pressure at home. 

If your blood pressure readings are consistently high, you and your doctor will probably discuss treatment strategies. Treatment for high blood pressure often begins with lifestyle changes such as a weight loss and exercise program as well as a low sodium diet. In fact, the AHA recommends adopting these strategies as a means of preventing the development of high blood pressure and heart disease. If these strategies are not successful in lowering your blood pressure, medications may be recommended.

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