September 16 – Heart To Heart

Today’s factismal: The technical name for a blood pressure cuff is sphygmomanometer.

Every time you go to a doctor’s office, you meet a nurse carrying one. Most drugstores have an automatic one. And you can even buy little ones to use at home. They are one of the most common medical devices in use today. What are they? The sphygmomanometer or blood pressure cuff (because sphygmomanometer is a mouthful). They get their name from what they do; a manometer measures pressure and sphygmos is Greek (what else?) for pulse. So a sphygmomanometer measures the pressure of your pulse.

Even the Assitant Surgeon general needs to have her blood pressure monitored (Image courtesy CDC)

Even the Assistant Surgeon General needs to have her blood pressure monitored
(Image courtesy CDC)

And it turns out that the pressure of your pulse is a pretty important thing to measure. It tells the doctor a lot about your cardiovascular system; that is, about the way your heart pumps blood through your body. For example, your blood pressure has two numbers associated with it. There is a number that tells the doctor the maximum pressure that it takes to move blood (the systolic pressure) and another that tells the doctor the minimum pressure in your blood (the diastolic pressure).  Typically, the two numbers are about 30 points different, e.g., a reading of 120/90. If the numbers differ by more than 40 points for multiple readings, that could indicate a serious heart condition. And if the systolic number is too high or too low, then that could also mean that you need to see a doctor.

Description Systolic (High) Number Diastolic (Low) Number What to do?
Hypotension <90 <60 See a doctor
Normal 90–119 60–79 Smile!
Prehypertension 120–139 80–89 See a doctor
Hypertension >140 >90 Really go see a doctor

Blood pressure that is too low is known as hypotension and can cause dizziness and fainting; it is caused by things such as shock, blood loss, disease, and simply standing up too quickly. (That last one usually goes away pretty quickly but it has a cool name – orthostatic hypotension.) Hypotension is fairly rare and usually caused by a reaction to medications.

Blood pressure that is too high is known as hypertension; doctors call it “the silent killer” because it can cause strokes, heart failure, heart attacks, kidney failure, and blindness without the victim ever knowing that he has it. And there are a lot of people with the disease. The CDC estimates that one out of every three Americans has hypertension  – that’s 70,000,000 people! As you might guess, something this common and this deadly has a lot of people researching it.

Heart disease rates across the USA (Image courtesy CDC)

Heart disease rates across the USA
(Image courtesy CDC)

And that research is beginning to bear fruit. In a recent study of 9,300 people suffering from hypertension, they discovered that dropping the diastolic pressure below 140 is good but dropping it below 120 is great! When the participants managed to bring their blood pressure back down into the “normal” range, their risk for heart attacks, stroke, and heart failure dropped by a third. Even better, their risk of dying dropped by a quarter! Because the results were so startling and so clear, the study ended two years early so that everyone could be put on a regime to lower their blood pressure.

If you’d like to do a little heart work of your own and maybe work in some citizen science on the side, why not head over to the CDC’s Million Heart website. there you will find tools to help you manage your blood pressure and learn what it will take to prevent a million heart attacks by 2017. To learn more, beat a path to:


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