You know the 4-1-1 for great blood pressure: Eat a diet that tastes great but is devoid of the five food felons (saturated fats, trans fats, simple sugars, added syrups, and any grains that aren't 100% whole grains), walk 10,000 steps a day, and relax regularly with meditation, some cuddling, and/or yoga. But there are six common goof-ups when your healthcare provider checks your blood pressure -- and they throw off the readings 93% of the time!
If you’re not tested using "gold standard" blood pressure procedures, the top number (your heart’s pumping pressure, known as systolic blood pressure) is probably off by at least 5 points and the bottom number (your resting pressure, known as diastolic blood pressure) by 2 points. That’s enough to change the prescribed medical treatments of 45% of patients, and make it seem like you have high blood pressure (hypertension).
Here are 7 tips to make sure you get the most accurate blood pressure readings possible. If you check your blood pressure at home, you can follow these for spot-on DIY results.
- Don’t get "cuffed" too fast. Waiting 5 minutes after you come into the exam room erases the effects of whatever you did to get to the doc’s office on time. Walking fast boosts your reading by 5 to 14 points, and driving in traffic raises it 9 to 14 points. Don’t be shy about insisting you have time to rest before your blood pressure test.
- Keep quiet. Talking or listening to the practitioner during your check can raise both your blood pressure numbers by 10 points. We know there is little enough time to spend talking with the doc, but you’ll have to do it after the test!
- Be sure your body is well-supported. An "off" position -- sitting to one side, for example -- can increase your blood pressure. Sit with your back/lumbar supported, feet flat on the floor, legs uncrossed. Your blood pressure cuff should be at heart level (at-home testers who use a wrist cuff, keep your arm and wrist at heart level, too). These steps can prevent a 2- to 11-point increase in blood pressure readings.
- Get the right size blood pressure cuff. If you’re extra-large or petite, match the cuff to your arm size. One that’s too tiny can raise your numbers by 10 points. One that’s too big makes your reading lower than reality.
- Ask for a blood pressure check on each arm. Checking right and left arms can catch problems you might miss if the only blood pressure measurement taken happens to be on your "low pressure" side, and differences between your two arms of 15 points or more can also be an early-warning sign of a clogged aorta or blockage in another major blood vessel. Neither you nor your doctor want to miss that!
- Be smart about white-coat hypertension. The blood pressure of one in 4 adults spikes the minute a doctor, nurse, or physician’s assistant appears. That spike may signal how you normally live. We ask our patients with this problem to wear a 24- to 48-hour blood pressure monitor that tracks the shifts that occur around the clock. If that’s not possible -- and blood pressure problems are an ongoing concern for you and your doctor -- here's the best way to find out your true blood pressure: At your doc appointment, ask to sit quietly, solo, in an exam room for 30 minutes while wearing a monitor that automatically checks your pressure every 5 minutes.
- Skip the coffee break, but take a bathroom break. Sipping tea, coffee, cola, or other caffeinated drinks within 30 minutes beforehand raises blood pressure. And a full bladder’s not just uncomfortable; it can boost your blood pressure by 20 points, too.