The last time you saw your doctor, your nurse or medical assistant probably put a blood pressure cuff on your arm and a pulse oximeter on your finger, told you a few numbers, and then typed something in your chart. You probably knew that those gadgets were measuring your vital signs, but maybe you wondered what those numbers really meant or why they seemed to be so important to your medical team.
Vital signs can give us a quick snapshot of a person’s health and provide important information about how the body is functioning. The four vital signs that are commonly taken are blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature. Below is a short description of each vital sign and what it can tell you about your body.
- Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is a measure of the force of blood as it pushes against the walls of your arteries, which are the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from your heart to the rest of the body. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and is usually expressed as two values, such as 120/80 (read as 120 over 80). The top number represents your systolic blood pressure, which is the maximum pressure when your heart beats and sends blood out into the body. The bottom number represents your diastolic blood pressure, which is the minimum pressure when your heart relaxes and fills with blood.
For many years, the “normal” blood pressure value for adults was considered to be 120/80. However, new guidelines were released in 2017 by the American Heart Association. A normal systolic blood pressure value is now considered to be less than 120 mmHg, and a normal diastolic value is considered to be less than 80 mmHg. The chart below shows the ranges for normal blood pressure, elevated blood pressure, and several stages of high blood pressure.
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, forces the heart to work harder to pump out blood and places a great deal of stress on your heart and your blood vessels. This can lead to a hardening of your arteries and enlargement of your heart and can put you at an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. When untreated for a long period of time, high blood pressure can lead to heart failure.
- Heart Rate
Heart rate, also known as your pulse, is a measure of how many times your heart beats in a minute. The heart rate range that is considered normal for an adult is 60-100 beats per minute (bpm). In most cases, a lower heart rate is considered to be desirable because it means that the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood to the rest of the body. Heart rate can be measured at multiple sites in the body, including at the wrist, the elbow, the neck, behind the knee, and at the ankle. It fluctuates throughout the day and should increase with activity and decrease with rest. A normal heart rate has regular intervals between beats. An arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, can be a sign that your heart is not functioning properly.
While heart rate can be easily taken manually, it can also be measured with a pulse oximeter placed on your fingertip or earlobe. Additionally, this device measures your oxygen saturation, which represents the amount of oxygen that your blood is carrying. A normal oxygen saturation is between 98% and 100%. This value can be decreased in patients that have pulmonary disorders, such as COPD.
- Respiratory Rate
Respiratory rate is the number of breaths that you take in one minute. To measure this vital sign, your practitioner may watch for the rise and fall of your chest over the course of a minute; often, the patient is not even aware that this is happening. A normal respiratory rate for an adult is considered to be within 12-20 breaths per minute. Like heart rate and blood pressure, respiratory rate typically rises with exercise and decreases with rest.
- Body Temperature
Body temperature may be the most straight-forward and self-explanatory of the vital signs. A normal body temperature can range from 97 to 99 degrees. An elevated temperature, or fever, can signify an infection in the body.
In conclusion, regular check-ups and checking your vital signs can help find potential health issues before they become a problem. When you see your doctor regularly, they are able to detect health conditions or diseases early. By getting the correct health services, screenings and treatment you are taking important steps toward living a longer, healthier life.