Copyright 2006 Frank Mangano. Did you know that your trusted family doctor may be taking a shortcut during your office visits that might be putting your health at risk?. I know it sounds hard to believe, but it’s true. As a result of trying to squeeze as many appointments as possible into their daily schedules, doctors sometimes skip vital steps during your physical exams.
It starts when you are rushed into the doctor’s office and the very first thing they do is take your blood pressure. This actually may be the worst time during your visit to do such a test, because the rushing and hurrying combined with the anxiety of being in a doctor’s office to begin with can automatically cause your blood pressure to spike.
In situations like this your blood pressure readings can be inaccurate or misleading. There are serious health consequences that can happen to you from a misdiagnosis – in either direction.
For someone with borderline high blood pressure, a false low reading may delay the necessary precautions to lower it. Untreated high blood pressure can lead to serious heart disease even decades down the road. On the other side of the coin is the scenario that a false high reading is recorded and a patient gets put unnecessarily on medication — medication they will likely have to take for the rest of their lives. For these reasons, it is critical that health care providers give accurate blood pressure readings.
There are three areas where improper blood pressure readings can far too easily occur. One is with the procedures used in taking the blood pressure readings. The American Heart Association (AHA) has established guidelines for taking blood pressure readings which involves taking at least 4 different readings and recording which were taken while standing and which while sitting.
Using the cuff, the AHA recommends taking the patient’s blood pressure reading TWICE, once on each arm, while the patient is in a standing position. Then record the average of these two readings.
Next, doctors should take the patient’s blood pressure TWICE, once on each arm, while they are sitting and record the average of the two readings. It is advised that the standing blood pressure numbers be used as a reference only, but the average of sitting measurement should be used as the most correct reading.
This procedure applies to taking measurements at home or at the doctor’s office. If the technician at your doctor’s office does not follow this procedure, request that they take more readings so that they can get a more accurate assessment. They may be surprised if they have not done this routinely how different the readings can be from one arm to the other or between standing and sitting. Also, ask them to give you a few minutes to relax after arriving at the office. If you can, try to be a little early for the appointment so you can have plenty of time to rest.
The second area where blood pressure readings can be inaccurate is with faulty equipment. Cuffs need to be calibrated periodically to be accurate. Doctor’s offices and labs should do this routinely, and you will need to maintain your home system according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you are buying a cuff for home use, it is a good idea to use a manual cuff. Few of the automatic blood pressure cuffs on the market for the general public are very accurate and easily lose calibration. They tend to give false low readings and a false sense of healthy blood pressure. The hospital grade automatic cuffs are much more accurate, but not affordable to the average person. A manual cuff still gives the most accurate reading. A moderately priced cuff and stethoscope set can help you stay on top of your blood pressure from home. That is, so long as you know what you are doing.
That brings us to the third area where errors can occur: operator error. You must learn how to properly use the cuff and listen for a heartbeat. Be sure to get proper training from a qualified health care professional.
When doing the test at home, operator error often occurs when the cuff is not made tight enough to get a loud enough heart beat. The cuff has to be pumped up to the point that it is just starting to be uncomfortable. Next, make sure you are in a quiet enough space that you can tell when the heart beat is starting and stopping and then take careful note of the gauge’s reading.