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When should one play doctor?

Self-diagnosis and treatment--except for the most ordinary maladies such as the common cold, minor scrapes, cuts and bruises, etc.--are certainly to be avoided. However, there are many things we can do at home to keep track of our physical condition and that of our family members. One of these is a regular check of blood pressure.

Just what is a blood pressure measurement? As blood circulates, it exerts pressure against the walls of the arteries that carry it from the heart. A blood pressure measurement determines the degree of that pressure, which reflects the resistance the artery imposes against the heart's effort to pump the blood through it.

Blood pressure varies during the day and with various activities. Typically, it is lowest while we sleep, and is elevated by exercise, stress and other factors. When it remains higher than it should be under any of these conditions, it is referred to as high blood pressure or hypertension. The cause of hypertension may be identified or it may not. When there is no obvious cause for it, it is called essential hypertension. That simply means we don't know its cause.

Blood pressure is expressed as two figures: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. The first measures the force with which the heart is pumping blood, and the second is the force when the heart is resting between beats.

Blood pressure is expressed in millimeters of mercury (e.g., 120/80 mm Hg, or "120 over 80"), the first being the systolic and the second the diastolic pressure. (This unit of measurement comes from the type of blood pressure apparatus--the sphygmomanometer--most commonly used in doctors' offices. This is the device that uses a column of mercury in a glass tube to measure the pressure.)

For home use, an electronic sphygmomanometer is ideal. By eliminating the need for a stethoscope, it can be easily managed by oneself. Fifty dollars or less invested in a good electronic apparatus will provide years of service for all members of the family.

In any event, don't rely on 50-cent blood pressure gadgets in airports or drugstores. Readings taken at different times of the day, at rest, will give a more accurate picture of one's blood pressure, and you only need medical attention if your levels consistently reach 140/90 or higher.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Benjamin Franklin Literary & Medical Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:medical self-care
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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