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Part 1 of 8: Overview

Making Sense of Blood

Understanding blood pressure (also known as hypertension) isn’t easy, especially when
words like “systolic,” “diastolic,” and “millimeters of mercury” (mm Hg) are involved. In
order to keep high blood pressure under control, it’s important to know what levels are
considered normal, as well as how to tell when your blood pressure is too high.

By learning some basic concepts, you can become an expert in reading and understanding
your blood pressure numbers. Read on to have hypertension explained to you.

Part 2 of 8: Numbers
Numbers Game
Everyone would like to have healthy, normal blood pressure. But what exactly does that
mean? When your doctor takes your blood pressure, it’s expressed as a measurement with
two numbers, with one number on top and one on the bottom, like a fraction.

The top number refers to the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your
heart muscle; this is called “systolic” pressure. The bottom number refers to your blood
pressure when your heart muscle is between beats; this is called “diastolic” pressure.

Part 3 of 8: Normal
What’s Normal?
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.

When both your systolic and diastolic numbers are in these ranges, then you are considered
by the American Heart Association (AHA) to be within the normal range for blood pressure.
Note that blood pressure readings are expressed as “millimeters of mercury,” which is
abbreviated as “mm Hg.” So a normal reading would be any blood pressure below 120/80
mm Hg.

Find out if you're at risk for pulmonary arterial hypertension »

Part 4 of 8: Red Flags
When to Worry
Numbers higher than 120/80 are a red flag that you need to take on heart-healthy habits.

When your systolic (upper number) is between 120 and 139 mm Hg or your diastolic (lower
number) is between 80 and 89, it means you have “prehypertension.”
Although these numbers aren’t technically considered “high blood pressure,” you’ve moved
out of the normal range. Elevated blood pressure has a good chance of turning into actual
high blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Part 5 of 8: Stage 1
Hypertension: Stage 1
You’ll generally be diagnosed with high blood pressure if your systolic blood pressure
reaches between 140 and 159 mm Hg, or if your diastolic blood pressure reaches between 90
and 99 mm Hg. This is considered “stage 1” hypertension.

However, the AHA notes that if you get only one reading this high, you may not truly have
high blood pressure. What determines the diagnosis of hypertension at any stage is if your
numbers remain this high over a period of time.

Your doctor can help you measure and track your blood pressure to confirm whether it is too
Part 6 of 8: Stage 2
Hypertension: Stage 2
If stage 1 high blood pressure is cause for concern, stage 2 high blood pressure indicates an
even more serious condition. If your blood pressure reading shows a top number of 160 or
more, or a bottom number of 100 or more, this is considered stage 2 hypertension.
At this stage, in addition to making lifestyle changes—such as losing weight, eating better,
and exercising more—your doctor may recommend one or more medications for keeping
your blood pressure under control.

Part 7 of 8: Hypertensive Crisis

Danger Zone
A blood pressure reading above 180/110 mm Hg—or having either the systolic ordiastolic
numbers higher than this—indicates a serious health problem.
The AHA refers to these high measurements as a “hypertensive crisis.” Blood pressure in
this range generally requires emergency treatment.
However, sometimes one high reading can occur, and then your numbers will return to
normal. If your blood pressure measures at this level, your doctor will likely take a second
reading after a few minutes have passed. A second high reading indicates that you’ll need
emergency medical services.

Part 8 of 8: Prevention
Preventive Measures
Normal blood pressure is not cause for complacency. The AHA recommends that even
people with healthy numbers take preventive measures to help keep their blood pressure in
the normal range, and also avoid the chance of developing hypertension or heart disease.

As you age, prevention becomes even more important. Systolic pressure tends to creep up
once you’re over 50, according to the AHA. Work on maintaining a healthy weight, which
you can achieve through diet and exercise. Having a healthy weight reduces your chances of
high blood pressure.