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Physical Exam for High Blood Pressure
A physical exam for high blood pressure also includes a medical history. The extent of the physical exam and the level of detail in your doctor's questions depend on how high your blood pressure is and whether you have other risk factors for heart disease. People who have many risk factors may have a more detailed evaluation.
The physical exam and medical history includes:
- Your medical history, to evaluate risk factors such as smoking or family history of high blood pressure.
- Two or more blood pressure measurements. Measurements may be taken from both the left and right arms and legs and may be taken in more than one position, such as lying down, standing, or sitting. Multiple measurements may be taken and averaged.
- Measurement of your weight, height, and waist.
- An exam of the retina, the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye.
- A heart exam.
- An exam of your legs for fluid buildup (edema), and the pulse in several areas, including the neck.
- An exam of your abdomen using a stethoscope. A doctor will listen to the blood vessels in the abdomen for abnormal sounds. These sounds may be caused by blood flow through a narrowed artery in the abdomen (abdominal bruits).
- An exam of your neck for an enlarged thyroid, distended neck veins, and bruits in the carotid arteries.
Why It Is Done
The physical exam and medical history are done to:
- Confirm that you have high blood pressure.
- Check for effects of high blood pressure on organs such as the kidneys and heart.
- Determine whether you have risk factors for heart disease or stroke.
- Rule out other causes of high blood pressure (secondary high blood pressure), such as medicines or other medical conditions.
Blood pressure measurements are classified as follows.1
- Systolic 119 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or below
- Diastolic 79 mm Hg or below
- Systolic 120–139 mm Hg
- Diastolic 80–89 mm Hg
High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Systolic 140 mm Hg or above
- Diastolic 90 mm Hg or above
High blood pressure is also classified into stages.
- Stage 1 high blood
- Systolic 140–159 mm Hg
- Diastolic 90–99 mm Hg
- Stage 2 high blood
- Systolic 160 mm Hg or higher
- Diastolic 100 mm Hg or higher
Your doctor might check for signs that high blood pressure has already caused damage to your blood vessels, heart, or eyes. Your doctor might check for:
- Extra heart sounds caused by enlargement of the heart.
- Swollen (distended) neck veins, which may point to possible heart failure.
- Abnormal sounds when the doctor listens to the blood vessels in the abdomen using a stethoscope. These sounds may be caused by blood flow through a narrowed artery in the abdomen (abdominal bruits) or a narrowed artery leading to the kidney (renal artery stenosis) or by abnormal movement of blood through the aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
- Abnormal sound of blood flow (bruit) or diminished or absent blood flow (pulses) in the blood vessels of the arms and legs.
- Abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdomen or legs (edema).
- Abnormalities of the blood vessels in the back of the eye.
What To Think About
A diagnosis of high blood pressure usually is based on an average of two or more readings taken during two or more visits after an initial screening.
- Except in very severe cases, the diagnosis is not based on a single reading.
- Two or more blood pressure measurements, taken at follow-up doctor visits, may be needed to confirm an initial high blood pressure reading.
- Single blood pressure readings taken a week apart may vary due to normal changes in blood pressure and to differences in how it is measured.
- Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (2003). Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure JNC Express (NIH Publication No. 03–5233). Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Last Revised: March 29, 2013
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