Mental Floss

How Do Blood Pressure Tests Work, And What Do Those Numbers Mean?

Matt Soniak
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Getty Images / Getty Images

Getting your blood pressure taken is a standard part of most visits to the doctor, but the details might seem mysterious—so read on.

What It Is

Blood pressure (BP) is the force exerted by circulating blood on the walls of the arteries as it's pumped from the heart. When we talk about it, we're usually referring specifically to the pressure as measured on the upper arm at the brachial artery.

Average blood pressure varies from person to person and is influenced by a number of factors, including age, gender, diet, stress, exercise and alcohol use. For an individual, blood pressure changes over the course of the day and even varies during a single heartbeat between a systolic (maximum) pressure, when the heart beats and pumps blood and the ventricles are contracting, and a diastolic (minimum) pressure, when the heart is at rest between beats and the ventricles are filled with blood.

That arm band the doctor uses to measure your BP is called a sphygmomanometer (from the Greek sphygmus ("pulse") + the scientific term manometer (pressure meter). The instrument consists of an inflatable cuff, a measuring unit and, for manual models, an inflation bulb and valve. The pressure of the cuff used to be measured on manual sphygmomanometers by observing a mercury column in the measuring unit and reading the BP as millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The risk of mercury leaks has led to the increased use of aneroid manual and even digital sphygmomanometers, but the mercury ones are still considered more accurate. Even if a mercury column isn't used, mmHg is still the unit of measurement for BP.

How It's Measured

During an exam, the cuff is placed around the upper arm at roughly the same height as the heart and inflated with the bulb until the artery is closed. Using the stethoscope, the doctor slowly releases the pressure in the cuff and listens. What they're listening for are the Korotkoff sounds, named for the Russian physician who described them in 1905. The first Korotkoff sound occurs when the pressure of the cuff is the same as the pressure produced by the heart and only some blood is able to pass through the upper arm in spurts, resulting in turbulence and an audible whooshing or pounding sound. The doctor records the pressure at which this sound is heard as the systolic blood pressure.

As the pressure in the cuff is further released, the sound changes in quality, becomes quieter (running through the second, third, and fourth Korotkoff sounds) and, when the cuff stops restricting blood flow enough to allow smooth flow with no turbulence, stops altogether. This silence is the fifth Korotkoff sound and the pressure at which it happens is recorded as the diastolic blood pressure.

The fraction that the doctor records as your blood pressure is the systolic pressure over the diastolic pressure, giving you the measure of both the pressure when your heart is exerting maximum pressure and when it's relaxed.

According to the American Heart Association, blood pressure readings break down like this:

Normal Blood Pressure: 120 systolic pressure and 80 diastolic pressure or less

Prehypertension:120-139 systolic pressure or 80-89 diastolic pressure

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 1: 140-159 systolic pressure or 90-99 diastolic pressure

High Blood Pressure Stage 2: 160+ systolic pressure or 100+ diastolic pressure

Hypertensive Crisis (emergency care needed): 180+ systolic pressure or 110+ diastolic pressure