Know your numbers: Blood pressure

What’s normal blood pressure? Do you know what the numbers mean?

Blood pressure is one of the numbers that plays a major role in measuring your health. You probably know it’s important, but do you know how high blood pressure contributes to heart disease? When you have your blood pressure checked, do you know what your numbers actually mean?

What is blood pressure?

Two numbers make up your blood pressure reading: systolic blood pressure (the top number) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number).

Systolic blood pressure shows how much pressure your blood is applying against the walls of your arteries during heartbeats. The diastolic reading shows how much pressure your blood applies to your artery walls while the heart rests between beats.

Why does blood pressure matter?

Many refer to high blood pressure as the “silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. If left untreated, it can lead to several life-threatening conditions:

  • Stroke: Blood pressure weakens arteries throughout the body, creating areas where they can become clogged or burst, causing a stroke.
  • Heart attack: The extra strain blood pressure places on arteries in the heart leads to clogging with a plaque (made up of cholesterol and triglycerides) that hardens over time and can cause a heart attack.
  • Heart failure: High blood pressure makes your heart work harder. Over time, this extra workload can lead to an enlarged heart. The larger your heart becomes, the harder it is for your heart to meet your body’s need for oxygen and nutrients. The blockages and strain can lead to heart failure.

What’s the best number for me?

While there are “normal” ranges for blood pressure, each person is as unique as their reading.

“As cardiologists, we know that a variety of factors can contribute to a variance in blood pressure numbers. What may be considered ‘normal’ or in a good range for one person may be high or elevated for another,” said Joseph A. Lash, M.D., chief of cardiology for Norton Heart & Vascular Institute. “One thing is for certain: We want to see everyone’s blood pressure below 140/90. Anything over this figure, regardless of the reason, needs to be evaluated by a physician.”

You are more than a number!

To determine the blood pressure range that is best for you, be sure to speak to your primary care provider or cardiovascular specialist.

What the numbers mean

Knowing your blood pressure numbers can help you and your provider work together to keep you healthy.

Blood pressure Systolic (top number)
mmHg
Diastolic (bottom number)
mmHg
Normal Less than 120 Less than 80
Elevated 120-129 Less than 80
High blood pressure

(hypertension stage 1)

130-139 80-89
High blood pressure

(hypertension stage 2)

140 and higher 90 or higher
Hypertensive crisis

(Go to your provider immediately.)

Higher than 180 and/or Higher than 120

Normal: Blood pressure is within the normal range. Continue working with your provider to stay within this range.

Elevated: When your readings are consistently in the elevated range, you are at risk for high blood pressure. If you’re in this range, you can make changes to lower your blood pressure

Hypertension stage 1: In stage 1, your provider likely will prescribe lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, making diet changes and more, based on your health history. Your provider may prescribe a blood pressure medication based on your individual risk for heart disease and stroke.

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Hypertension stage 2: In this stage, your provider likely will prescribe blood pressure medications and lifestyle changes.

Hypertensive crisis: If your blood pressure readings are suddenly higher than 180/120 mmHg, wait 5 minutes and then test again. If your reading is still high, call your doctor.

If you have any of these signs and your blood pressure is in the crisis range, call 911:

  • Severe headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nosebleeds
  • Severe anxiety

When blood pressure is in the hypertensive crisis range, it can have severe outcomes:

  • Stroke
  • Lose of consciousness
  • Memory loss
  • Heart attack
  • Eye and kidney damage
  • Lose of kidney function
  • A tear in the aorta (aortic dissection)
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
  • Seizures during pregnancy (eclampsia)

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