Monitoring the Heart

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Vital Statistics

There are two important vital statistics that doctors use to assess the immediate health of your heart: blood pressure and pulse. These "numbers" fluctuate as your heart's condition changes.

Woman taking her own blood pressure

Blood pressure is taken using an instrument called a sphygmomanometer which consists of a cuff that can be filled with air, a hollow rubber bulb that pumps the air, and a glass tube containing a column of mercury. After placing the cuff around the upper arm, the doctor holds a stethoscope over the artery just below the cuff. The pulse can be heard. Next, air is pumped into the cuff, stopping the flow of blood through the artery. Then, air is slowly let out of the cuff, letting the blood flow again. The pressure with which the blood begins to flow represents the pressure of the heart's contraction (known as the systolic phase). More air is let out of the cuff, muffling the sound, and representing the pressure of the heart's relaxation (known as the diastolic phase).

sphygmometer

These two phases are measured using two numbers which stand for millimeters. The column of mercury in the glass tube rises and falls with the flow of the blood. The height of the column is measured in millimeters. The first number, which is higher, is taken when the heart beats during the systolic phase. The second number is taken when the heart relaxes during the diastolic phase. Normal blood pressure ranges from 110 to 150 millimeters (as the heart beats) over 60 to 80 millimeters (as the heart relaxes). Patients with readings that exceed either of these ranges are treated for hypertension (high blood pressure). Readings below either of these ranges indicate hypotension (low blood pressure) which does not usually require treatment.

Average blood pressure rates systolic are between 110 and 150. Average diastolic rates are between 60 and 80.

Pulse points on the arm

Your pulse is taken by touching one of several "pulse points" located on your body. These spots are areas where the arteries are near enough to the surface of the skin that the movement of blood through them can be felt. You can actually feel your artery expand and contract. Since the artery keeps pace with the heart, doctors can measure heart rate by counting the contractions of the artery. Watch a video about pulse checking (popup)

Average Pulse Rates

  • Adult Females: 76 to 80
  • Adult Males: about 72
  • Newborns: up to 140
  • Children: about 90
  • Elderly: 50 to 65
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