Making Heads or Tails of Blood Pressure Readings

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Have you ever caught yourself wondering what the whole fuss about blood pressure is? Why is it so important? Why do I need to keep my blood pressure within normal range? Who gets high blood pressure anyways? Can I control my blood pressure? Does high blood pressure affect only old people? These and many more are questions often asked by many people.

Understanding the concept of blood pressure might seem like a daunting task, however you can become an expert in reading and understanding your blood pressure or that of a loved one just by learning some basic terms and classifications. If you are interested then keep reading, after all the prevalence of hypertension in Africa is estimated at only 46% in adults aged 25 and above (WHO, 2013), that’s some motivation, right?

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure refers to the pressure exerted by blood on the walls of the blood vessels in the circulatory system.

“in simple terms “When your heart beats, it pumps blood round your body to give it the energy and oxygen it needs. As the blood moves, it pushes against the sides of the blood vessels. The strength of this pushing is your blood pressure.” 

Blood pressure is recorded using a blood pressure monitor which is a device known as the sphygmomanometer which comes in a range of manual and automatically operated designs. The manual is mostly used in healthcare centres while the automatic is frequently used in home settings.

What do the numbers mean?

When you get your blood pressure taken,  it is expressed as a measurement with a set of two numbers, with one number on top and one on the bottom, like a fraction. i..e. The Systolic  Pressure and The Diastolic pressure.

  • Systolic Pressure: Usually the top number, is the highest level your blood pressure reaches during contraction when your heart beats.
  • Diastolic Pressure: Usually the bottom number in a reading, is the lowest level your blood pressure reaches as your heart relaxes between beats.

Classification of blood pressure readings…

For a normal reading, your blood pressure needs to show a top number that’s lower than 120, and a bottom number that’s lower than 80. The figure below shows the different stages and severity of blood pressure abnormalities.



Hypertension is defined as a systolic blood pressure (SBP) of 140 mm Hg or more, or a diastolic blood pressure (DBP) of 90 mm Hg or more, usually requiring regulation with anti-hypertensive medication (WHO, 2013). Hypertension is known as the“silent killer” as majority of sufferers experience  no symptoms at all. Notwithstanding, hypertension could cause symptoms such as headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, palpitations of the heart and nose bleeds.

Having a high blood pressure pressure puts extra strain on the heart, blood vessels and other important organs in the body. Over time if left uncontrolled, this extra strain increases your risk of a heart attack, heart failure, peripheral artery disease, chronic kidney disease and stroke.

Normal: Normal blood pressure requires no antihypertensive drug treatment. However lifestyle modification is encouraged to maintain optimum blood pressure especially during advancement in age.

Prehypertension: The pre hypertensive stage is also indicative of necessary lifestyle modification to halt the progression to stage 1 hypertension. Drug therapy is usually not indicated in this group, however it might be recommended depending on other co morbidity (Diabetes, Hyperlipidemia).

Stage 1 & 2 Hypertension: There is a strong indication for both lifestyle modification as well as drug therapy in this stage. In stage 2 hypertension, a two-drug combination therapy is usually prescribed to effectively control blood pressure. Lifestyle modification is also strong advised in this group as secondary prevention.

All adults above the age of 25, should have their blood pressure checked routinely.It is imperative to know your numbers. If your blood pressure is high, it is advisable to seek the advice of a health professional.

Juliet E.


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