For a lot of people, taking their blood pressure at home is a crucial step in monitoring their health. It’s essential to get an accurate reading, but there are many factors that cause variations in blood pressure.
We talked to Andrew Williams, MD, a cardiologist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ, to learn more about why you might want to take your blood pressure at home and how to get the best results.
Who should take their blood pressure at home?
Dr. Williams said that for people with certain health conditions, monitoring blood pressure closely by checking it at home is important:
- People with heart disease, including those who have had heart attacks, stents or open-heart surgery
- People who have high blood pressure
- People with cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, smoking or diabetes
- Pregnant women, especially those at risk for preeclampsia
“Even for people without risk factors, checking every once in a while, is probably reasonable,” Dr. Williams said.
What type of blood pressure monitor should I use?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an automatic cuff that checks the pressure in your upper arm. These monitors are more accurate than wrist and finger versions. The website ValidateBP can help you find a monitor that’s been validated for clinical accuracy through an independent review process. Prior to choosing a monitoring device, make sure to measure around your upper arm to ensure you choose a cuff that is the right size for you.
After you get a monitor, bring it to your next doctor’s appointment so your doctor can help you make sure you’re using it properly and can compare the results to their monitor.
What should I do before I check my blood pressure?
For the most accurate reading, take your blood pressure at the same time every day. Your blood pressure can vary naturally over the course of the day. Plan for a time when you can empty your bladder and then sit and rest for five to ten minutes before you get started. “I tell people to do something relaxing while you wait,” Dr. Williams said. “If watching the news on TV is stressful, don’t watch the news while you are checking your blood pressure!”
For 30 minutes beforehand, avoid smoking, drinking caffeine or exercising, since they can raise your blood pressure.
What should I do to make sure I get an accurate blood pressure reading?
The way your body is positioned can affect your blood pressure. The AHA recommends that you:
- Sit with your back straight and supported — a dining room chair is a good choice
- Keep your feet flat on the floor and don’t cross your legs
- Roll up your sleeve — don’t measure through your clothes
- Rest your arm on a table with the upper arm at heart level
- Put the bottom of the blood-pressure cuff right above the bend in your elbow
- Activate the monitor, so it measures your blood pressure
- Take two or three readings one minute apart and record the results so you can watch for changes and share information with your doctor (some monitors will automatically upload your readings to a secure website)
You can download and print a PDF that shows you how to take your blood pressure properly from the AHA.
What if my blood pressure reading is high?
Your blood pressure will fall into these ranges:
- Normal: Less than 120/80 mmHg
- Elevated: 120-129/<80 mmHg
- Stage 1 high blood pressure: 130-139/80-89 mmHg
- Stage 2 high blood pressure: 140/90 mmHg or higher
- Hypertensive crisis: 180/120 mmHg or higher
“We generally try to focus on the “big picture” and not get overly concerned about one slightly higher reading. We focus more on the “forest” rather than the trees,” Dr. Williams said. Here’s what to do in the case of a high reading:
- If you get a somewhat higher measurement than normal, take it a couple more times and if it continues to be high, contact your doctor.
- If your blood pressure is very high, that’s a cause for concern, and you should get in touch with your doctor.
- If your blood pressure is over 180/120 mmHg and you are feeling well, wait five minutes and test again. Contact your doctor immediately if it’s still high since you could be in a hypertensive crisis. If it’s higher than 180/120 mmHg and you have chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, numbness, weakness, vision changes or difficulty speaking, call 911.
The bottom line
For many people, monitoring blood pressure at home can be a crucial step toward staying healthy. If you check your blood pressure, it’s important to do it properly, so you get an accurate reading.