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Understanding Your Blood Pressure

Updated on March 9, 2013

Blood pressure - the silent killer.

'The Silent Killer' - why?

This title was coined many years ago to describe one of the most dangerous conditions in medical science. The phrase is a very apt one, because when we suffer from abnormalities in blood pressure - at least with high blood pressure, (HBP) - it can be present without people realising it.

The danger arises from the damage that HBP is causing internally. This internal damage takes the form of eroding the linings of the vessels, allowing fatty deposits and other debris to stick to the sides. This narrows the blood vessels to such an extent that blood flow becomes restricted, leading to reduced oxygen and nutrients being delivered to the body tissues. This in turn can lead to cardiovascular diseases affecting the heart, brain and other areas such as the kidneys. Continual narrowing of the vessels can also lead to blockages such as clots causing heart attacks and strokes in particular.

However, to get a bigger picture of high blood pressure, we'll look at what it actually is and why we need to have a blood pressure at all.

The heart and arteries are powerful enough to send blood to every area of our body. In order to do this, they create blood pressure.
The heart and arteries are powerful enough to send blood to every area of our body. In order to do this, they create blood pressure. | Source
Diagram of an artery showing the specialised muscle lining that helps to push blood along and keeps blood pressure up.
Diagram of an artery showing the specialised muscle lining that helps to push blood along and keeps blood pressure up. | Source

What is Blood Pressure?

The NHS UK gives this definition:

"Blood pressure measures how strongly blood presses against the walls of your arteries (large blood vessels) as it is pumped around your body by your heart."

This then is the basis for your blood pressure. Blood has to get around your body in order to deliver oxygen and nutrients as well as taking waste matter away. Blood is transported through a huge network of tubes called the circulatory system, containing different types of blood vessel:

  • Arteries - are large blood vessels that carry, usually, oxygenated blood, but there are exceptions. For example the pulmonary artery carries de-oxygenated blood to the lungs to get rid of carbon dioxide and to pick up oxygen.
  • Arterioles - these are smaller branches coming off from a main artery and connect to the capillaries. They carry oxygenated blood.
  • Capillaries - these are the smallest blood vessels in the body. They are hair like structures that surround body tissues delivering oxygen and nutrients and also taking waste matter away. They also act as a connection between arterioles and venules.
  • Venules - these are very small veins that carry de-oxygenated blood and other wastes from the capillaries into larger veins. The body then carries this blood to areas in the body where the waste can be expelled.
  • Veins - the largest vessels that carry de-oxygenated blood and waste matter.

In order for this delivery and pick up system to function properly the blood needs to be pushed around the body under force or 'pressure' to ensure that it reaches even the body tissues furthest away from the heart such as the toes.

  • The force or pressure is firstly triggered by the heart's powerful contractions.
  • The arteries have specially adapted walls. When the heart contracts to pump, then relaxes, the arteries will themselves contract on the heart's relaxation pause. The muscular, elastic wall allows the arteries to both contract and relax so creating pressure that forces the blood along. This happens very fast and usually smoothly.
  • As the blood goes into ever decreasing size of blood vessels nearer to the body tissues, the blood pressure begins to drop. The blood is now slow enough to allow oxygen and nutrients to be delivered and waste to be picked up. However, even this is a very fast and regulated procedure.
  • In addition, blood vessels are also controlled by the nervous system which sends signals that can contract or dilate blood vessels. This mechanism is needed for example during exercise, when the blood needs to be pumped faster in order to deliver more oxygen to the muscles and tissues.

The effects high blood pressure has on body organs

Normal blood pressure

The force that presses on the blood vessels is considerable but usually the circulatory system copes very well. However, problems arise when the pressure is increased to above normal or decreases to below normal.

Normal blood pressure

When you have your blood pressure (BP) taken by a doctor or nurse, there are two readings that they are looking for and both are important. These are:

  • The systolic reading
  • The diastolic reading

Non-electronic method - when the blood pressure cuff is placed around your upper arm, it's first tightened, this increases the blood pressure in the upper arm and as it comes back down to usual levels by the pressure being slowly released, a pulse will eventually be heard through the stethoscope - this first sound is the systolic pressure. The sound continues but then disappears. The moment the pulse sound disappears, the second reading is noted - this is your diastolic pressure.

The arm is used because a large blood vessel called the 'brachial' artery lies quite close to the surface of the inner arm. If you straighten your arm out, palm upwards, using two fingers of your free hand feel for a pulse on the inner arm just above the crease of the elbow. You might have to feel around for it for a few minutes, but finally you will be able to feel the pulse. This is the one used to check routine blood pressure.

The systolic reading then is the top number or the first number read out by your doctor/nurse. If you see it written down the first number looks like this as an example - 120/. The systolic reading indicates the amount of force and pressure being put on the blood vessels as the heart pumps blood around the body.

The diastolic reading is the amount of pressure still on the blood vessels during the heart's pause or rest between beats. This is the second figure that a doctor/nurse will give you. So you would have your systolic of example 120/ and then added to this would be your diastolic, for example 120/80. You would therefore have a blood pressure of '120 over 80'. If you look at the table with this hub, you will see that this reading is a normal blood pressure level, but not everyone has this ideal.

Blood pressure readings

Blood Pressure Reading
Systolic (heart pumping pressure) of 120
This is normal
Systolic - 121-139
This is normal but slightly higher than the ideal
Systolic - 140 or above
This is hypertension/high blood pressure
Diastolic (heart at rest pressure) 80
This is normal
Diastolic - 81-89
This is normal but slightly higher than the ideal
Diastolic - 90 or above
This is hypertension/high blood pressure
* A blood pressure of 90 systolic/60 diastolic is hypotenstion/low blood pressure*
Diagram showing the main health complications of long term high blood pressure/hypertension.
Diagram showing the main health complications of long term high blood pressure/hypertension. | Source

Blood pressure

Do you or does someone you know suffer from high blood pressure?

See results

What is High Blood Pressure?

We've probably all heard about high blood pressure (HBP) and here we'll have a look at the causes of this condition and why it's so dangerous. However, if you have only had one reading of your blood pressure that showed a high figure - approximately anything from 140/90 and above, this doesn't necessarily mean you have HBP. Our blood pressure varies from day to day and can be increased temporarily by stressful episodes etc.

For people who have consistent HBP the main risks comes from the excessive force the pressure puts on the vessels of the circulatory system including the heart. This continual damage to the vessels can lead to various medical conditions of the heart, strokes and kidney damage.

In most cases the reason for high blood pressure remains a mystery but there are certain life-style factors that can have a negative impact on blood pressure readings:

  • Medical conditions already present - such as diabetes
  • Your ethnic background - it has been found that people from the Indian sub-continent and people with African-Caribbean origins tend to have higher blood pressure and the reasons are unknown.
  • Obesity
  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Taking a high salt content in the diet
  • Not enough fruit and veg in the diet
  • To much caffeine
  • Alcohol

What is low blood pressure?

One of the most common forms of low blood pressure or 'hypotension' is a medical condition called 'postural hypotension'. Elderly people in particular can be prone to this and it basically means that when the person stands or moves position, their blood pressure drops quickly. The blood pressure will adjust itself after a few minutes, but there is always the risk with elderly people of becoming light-headed and falling.

Usually when we stand up, due to gravity, blood will begin to flow downwards and pool in the legs. There are special receptors in the body that pick up on when blood pressure is falling. These special cells are called 'baroreceptors' and trigger the heart to beat faster. In addition, they also narrow the blood vessels. Both these mechanism help to restrict blood flow and increases pressure so stabilising blood pressure throughout the body. However, with some people, in particular the elderly, this function doesn't work as well. However, there are other factors that may cause low blood pressure of this kind:

  • Dehydration. Loss of body fluid due to not drinking enough, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea can all lead to dehydration. The body then loses blood volume leading to a drop in blood pressure. In addition medical conditions, such as untreated diabetes where frequent urination is a symptom can also lead to dehydration and postural hypotension.
  • Heart problems. Various medical problems with the heart can lead to an extreme lowering of the heart rate called bradycardia. This in turn lowers the blood pressure significantly leading to postural hypotension.
  • Disorders of the nervous system. Conditions that affect the nervous system such as Parkinson's disease can have an affect on the body's ability to regulate blood pressure properly.

Signs and symptoms of postural hypotension:

  • The first sign that most people notice is feeling dizzy and light headed. This usually happens either as they stand up or when they lie down.

  • People can also faint with low blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Feeling weak
  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion

I hope this article has given you a better insight into what your blood pressure is. If you have any concerns about your blood pressure then speak to your doctor. In addition, if it's more than five years since last having your blood pressure checked, it wouldn't do any harm to get your doctor to take a reading for you. Remember, for high blood pressure there are no symptoms so getting a medical check is a great way to ensure your body is still working well and within safe limits.


Submit a Comment

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Deb Welch, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub. That's great that your BP is normal now. My sister's BP is still on the high side but at least slowly coming down.

  • profile image

    Deb Welch 5 years ago

    Useful, Interesting - Up. Thanks for the info. I had HBP - but being treated and it is normal now.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rhonda, lovely to hear from you. Everything is fine thank you and how about you and yours? I don't know if it's just me, but I seem to be even more busy now than I was when doing the apprenticeship course!! Do you find that? I always seem to be playing catch up - LOL!

    Anyway, glad that you enjoyed the hub and that is very interesting about low blood pressure running in your family, it's the first time I've come across someone I know, who has this genetically. Feeling cold easily is also interesting, as I recollect a patient who was writing for one of the medical sites, explaining that he feels cold even during the summer months if the temps drop a bit - but because he lives in the UK here, and given our weird summer weather, I'm not surprised he was affected that way. I'll need to add this onto the symptoms though as this will be very useful for anyone who has low blood pressure.

    Many thanks again for stopping by and for asking about my family!

  • toknowinfo profile image

    toknowinfo 5 years ago

    Hi Helen, This is a wonderful, intelligent, and very well written article. I have low blood pressure, 90/70, but I don't think it is hypotension. Low blood pressure runs in my family. Another side effect of low blood pressure is that I tend to get cold easy. Thanks for such an interesting hub. I hope all is well with you and your family.


  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teaches12345, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Thankfully, my blood pressure is also within normal ranges - I had it checked about 3 weeks ago - and it's always a relief to know this.

    Also, it must be very annoying for patients when medical jargon isn't it explaine. Most of the time it's not done deliberately, it's just that many of them forget that not everyone knows what all the terms are.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ChitrangadaSharan, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I'm glad that the hub is going to be useful for you!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Alastar, as always a pleasure to hear from you! How very odd about lowering the blood pressure limit - it wouldn't honestly surprise me if it was the Big Pharma behind something like this! I'll tell you one thing, those huge companies scare me more than any ghost! When the recommend new levels or whatever, it's always carried out so sweetly and with masses of great PR but I'm very cynical. I'm not exactly a conspiracy theorist, but I don't trust those companies with peoples' over all health, especially when they make recommendations. All I can think of is the profits they will make. Perhaps that's unfair as there could be legitmate pharma., companies out there but I've yet to hear of them. What used to make me sick was the way their reps would sook up to doctors by giving them hugely expensive golfing weekends at awesome posh places such as Gleneagles - just up the road from where I stay. They would also give them all sorts of incentives to try and get them to use their brand - basically in monetary value it added significantly to the doctors' annual pay cheque! If we were lucky us nurses would get a pen and a crappy wee notebook!

    LOL!! Didn't realise you had 'white coat' syndrome - BP going up when going to see the doctor! I think a lot of people have that with any medical place - GP surgery, clinics or hospitals. One old doctor that we have doesn't take anyone's BP in his surgery until he's sure he has relaxed them enough to get a proper reading. Surprisingly he does this by telling them - deliberately - some really boring statistics about BPs etc., and the patients get that sleepy their BP goes down! Well that's his story and he's sticking to it. But it's very interesting you said about lowering your BP with exercise and diet. With this older doctor's younger patients, that's what he tends to recommend first before pills, unless the BP is dangerously high.

    And yes that is true about BP being lower in the am and higher at night - for most folks I think their BP is highest when coming back from a long day at work!

    Alastar as always I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments and viewpoints!!! Take care and have a nice weekend!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

    Excellent article and so very useful. I appreciate the chart with the readings since I never understand what they mean. I have a pretty normal blood pressure reading, guess that I should be thankful.

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Thank you very much for educating us about blood pressure. A very well explained hub. I have been searching the web about this, but now I would stick to this reliable information.


  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

    Great article on blood pressure. You know Helen I believe they've lowered the bar on normal B/P over here from 140/90 to something like 130/80. If you ask me it's a ploy to get more people prescribed Big Pharma meds but there you go. B/P is often lowest first thing in the morning and highest at night. I got mine down by exercise and diet to acceptable levels but every time I walk into the doctors it shoots up lol. Very useful and up my friend.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ytsenoh, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

  • ytsenoh profile image

    Cathy 5 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

    Helen, this hub is excellent. It is so well written and organized, but most importantly, it's a great educating tool loaded with information that is very helpful. Thank you.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, only glad that I could help! As to doctors, well that's there job to ensure that the patient and their families are informed fully. I've known a couple who were like that and then they were the first to complain about 'patients not following instructions'. Quite a few of us had to point out to them that if they'd bother to explain things to the patient in the first place, they would have been more than happy to follow their instructions.

    Take care!!

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    Thank you so much Helen. I understand it better now. Doctors don't seem to have the time nor the inclination to translate jargon into English. Lol . I do appreciate you taking the time to explain this for me.

    Thanks again my friend

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, what an awful time you had back then and then as you say when they wasted a whole 3 weeks looking for something tropical! There was an old professor from Edinburgh who used to give talks to nurses and I remember him saying that he always told his young doctors to look for the simplest and the most likely explantion first before anything exotic. So I guess they just heard the place name Papua New Guinea and they've thought, wow! Has to be some weird fever or parasite!

    As to the kidneys what acutally happens is that the kidneys usually detect levels of these 'chemicals' in the blood such as proteins etc. But they also detect higher levels of salt and water and its these higher levels of chemical waste that triggers the kidneys to draw them out of the blood and make urine. If this doesn't happen then the waste isn't taken out and your blood pressure is not regulated properly. During infections such as nephritis, this ability is lost and damage afterwards can make it more difficult for the kidneys. In addition, kidney damage causes a breakdown in communication with special enzymes produced by the kidneys that also help to regulate blood pressure and so blood pressure medication is often needed to help the body do this better after someone has had an illness involving the kidney.

    Sorry that I didn't explain this too well at first, I guess I hate the thought of bogging folks down with too much medical jargon - they get enough of it when they visit doctors/hospitals!

    If you need any further answers Rosemay, just let me know! And keep writing those awesome poems and hubs!!!

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    Thank you Helen. It was a pretty scary at the time especially when they started to talk about a kidney transplant. We had just returned to the UK from Papua New Guinea so they wasted 3 weeks looking for some tropical desease while he just got worse. But he is all good now thank goodness.

    So the medication he is taking now detects these chemicals and destroys them, is that right?

    Thank you so much for answering my questions it is very much appreciated, you are such a good friend and so very patient :)

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay - as always, lovely to hear from you, but I'm also really sorry about your lad! The kidneys can be so hardy and put up with a lot and yet at other times they can also be so vulnerable. Okay, lets have a go with the nephritis and the HBP. When nephritis hits the kidney there can be temporary damage that mostly sorts itself out but some people are left with small areas of the kidneys that are left with damage. There is enough in the kidney to have a perfectly healthy life. However, the kidneys themselves can have an impact on blood pressure by detecting certain chemicals in the blood. When the kidney is damaged, they don't detect these chemicals and this can lead to increased blood pressure. This is very simplified Rosemay but if you want more detail then just let me know. Glad your lad got into the police force - it would have been a big loss for them if he'd been rejected!

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    A great hub Helen. My understanding of HBP is more informed now. My son has HBP and we were told it was caused by nephritis at the age of 16. He is on medication to control it but it was touch and go when he applied to join the police force because of it. It was never explained (to me anyway) just how the nephritis caused HBP. So a simple explanation would be a bonus for me. and I would be grateful. Thanks

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi heidithorne, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you found the hub informative. There is enough evidence of 'white coat syndrome' you would think for doctors to take notice of what you are saying - also, the fact of not being believed might well elevate your blood pressure even higher! It's a very difficult position to find yourself in!!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello Ms Dee, glad that the article helped to give you more information and thanks for the lovely comment!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    HI Justsilvie, many thanks for leaving a comment and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi mperrottet, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. My blood pressure is also hgiher when at the doctors and I think it's maybe stress, at home we are a lot more relaxed. But that's an interesting question as I wonder if doctors take that into account when taking a blood pressure?

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi mary, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Your right about blood pressure. My sister is very trim and fairly healthy, yet she was diagnose with very high blood pressure three years ago and is still taking medication to keep it down, so yes, it definately is a silent killer.

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 years ago from Chicago Area

    Great article about an issue that I've been having to monitor lately. I have severe "white coat syndrome" and it's tough to convince doctors I don't have HBP. However, I do have to be very mindful of the situation and my breathing to keep it under control. Thanks for spreading the word on a very important health topic!

  • Ms Dee profile image

    Deidre Shelden 5 years ago from Texas, USA

    This general information is very helpful to me and hard to find elsewhere. Thank you for increasing my understanding of hypertension!

  • profile image

    Justsilvie 5 years ago

    Very useful well done hub! Voted up and sharing.

  • mperrottet profile image

    Margaret Perrottet 5 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

    Excellent hub clearly explaining how blood pressure works. I really found this informative. I wonder which is more accurate - a blood pressure cuff or taking a reading with a stethoscope. My blood pressure seems to get elevated whenever I visit the doctor, which I know is very common. When I take it myself at home it's always lower. Voted up, useful and interesting - well done!

  • mary615 profile image

    Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

    You did a wonderful job on this Hub, and I hope many people read it. Some people believe that high blood pressure only happens to overweight people, but I have a friend who weighs 105 lbs, and her BP is very high. You are SO right: High BP is a silent killer!

    Voted UP, etc. and will share.


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