If you regularly take your blood pressure or monitor someone else’s, you know how frustrating it can be to get an accurate result. It often takes two or more attempts to get it right, with each false reading invariably causing a rise in blood pressure (the very thing you’re trying to avoid).
Everyday activities like driving, exercising and even talking can elevate your blood pressure, said Elizabeth Andersen, MD, a family physician at Baptist Primary Care in Ponte Vedra. “People often think they can just throw on a cuff and measure their pressure anytime and anywhere, but there are things you can do to ensure you get it right.”
6 tips for an accurate reading
The smallest things can boost your pressure by five to 50 points. Here are a few tips to ensure accuracy:
- Find a calm, quiet spot.
- Sit with both feet on the floor, making sure your back is supported.
- Pick whichever arm you are more comfortable with and place the cuff two to three centimeters above the crease in your elbow, ensuring it’s tight enough to not slip down but not so tight it cuts off blood flow.
- Make sure there is no clothing between the cuff and your skin.
- Take two minutes to sit and relax with the cuff on before you start the reading.
- Don’t talk while your pressure is being taken.
If possible, Dr. Andersen recommended using an arm cuff because it tends to be more accurate than a wrist cuff.
What to avoid before your test
Just as certain steps can improve the accuracy of your blood pressure reading, some actions can inflate your numbers. Immediately before your test, try not to:
- Eat a large meal
- Drink caffeine
- Have a full bladder
It sounds simple, said Dr. Andersen, “but just taking the time use the bathroom so you’re not squirming and needing to go can help ensure you get a more accurate reading.”
If you think your reading is wrong, she recommended waiting a couple of minutes before retaking it. Although it’s tempting to switch arms, using the same arm ensures other variables, such as the position of the cuff, remain the same.
Is there a perfect number?
Around 47% of adults in the U.S. have hypertension or high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Dr. Andersen stressed there isn’t a golden number to strive for because the ideal range can differ from person to person.
“Everyone wants to know what the goal is or what the ideal number is, and I always say it’s whatever your physician tells you,” she said. "We generally want it to be less than 140 for systolic [the first number] and less than 90 for diastolic [the second number]. If it’s consistently higher than this, you’ll want to see your physician."
If your reading is in the 160s for systolic and in the 100s for diastolic, Dr. Andersen recommended getting in to see your physician within the next few days.
“If your systolic is 180 or over and the diastolic is 120 or over, you need to go to the emergency room to have your blood pressure lowered,” she said. These high numbers indicate that you could be experiencing a hypertensive crisis that requires immediate medical intervention.
Regular monitoring is key
For those with a history of hypertension, regular monitoring is essential because blood pressure can change with age and new medical conditions.
Keeping a log also helps physicians determine if a patient has “White Coat Syndrome” or “White Coat Hypertension,” where the anxiety of being in a clinical environment can cause a temporary rise in blood pressure.
"I see it every day. People bring in their logs, and everything is normal at home, but it’s high in the doctor’s office," Dr. Andersen said. "I recommend patients regularly check their blood pressure to make sure what I’m seeing in the office is similar to what they’re seeing at home so I can make sure we’re treating it appropriately."