5 Mistakes Patients Make Testing Their Blood Pressure

Nurses make it look so easy, right?

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If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure), your doctor might ask you to monitor your blood pressure at home, and for good reason: self-monitoring your BP can play a major role in your treatment. A 2017 study found that participants who checked their own blood pressure (and consistently took their medication) were more likely to improve their systolic blood pressure compared to those who did not self-monitor their BP. By committing to this daily testing, you can have a more active role in ensuring your medication is doing its job and your lifestyle tweaks to lower blood pressure are working.

Nurses have this task down to an art: They can strap you into that cuff and get a reading in seconds with their eyes closed. So it should be easy to do it at home, right?

Nurses make it look easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple task. “You want to make sure that when you’re testing your blood pressure, you’re in a situation where you’re not going to get falsely elevated readings,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. Here are the most common mistakes people make when testing their blood pressure at home.

MISTAKE: You’re testing in a noisy environment.

To get the most accurate reading, you want to be in a calm, quiet environment. The dramatic music on your favorite TV show can stimulate the body more that you might expect, even if you don’t necessarily feel it. Step away from any commotion and give yourself some quiet resting time, according to Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist for Lenox Hill Hospital. “You want to make sure you’re seated,” says Dr. Bond. “You [should] sit there for about five [to] ten minutes before you actually check it.”

MISTAKE: You just exercised or had coffee.

Endorphin rushes are great, but not when you want an accurate blood pressure reading. Avoid smoking, drinking caffeine, or exercising for at least 30 minutes prior to your blood pressure reading, as recommended by the American Heart Association. This will help catch your blood pressure in its most natural state.

MISTAKE: You don’t elevate your arm.

“Sitting with your feet on the floor and your back straight is ideal,” says Dr. Bond. “If you have a table next to you, [you can] lean your arm on that table to reduce any tension that there may be.” Choose a supportive chair and skip squishy, sunken sofas or recliners. Last but not least, keep both feet flat on the floor (sorry, leg-crossers).

MISTAKE: You don’t roll up your sleeve.

The reading will be most accurately if the cuff is flush against the skin. Roll up your sleeve or take off your sweater while you test your blood pressure. The middle of the cuff should sit right above the bend of your elbow, so you’ll really need to push up that sleeve to the top of your arm.

MISTAKE: You measure before taking your meds.

This one’s crucial: “Wait at least an hour after taking your blood pressure medication to take your blood pressure,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “We as doctors [need to] know if we’re prescribing the right medicine at the right dose.” Your doctor will tell you how often to check your blood pressure, and you will likely need to track it. A blood pressure journal can help you get a better summary of your blood pressure over time, as opposed to just a single reading.

Self-monitoring your BP—accurately—can help you reverse your hypertension, which your entire body will thank you for. Here’s how high blood pressure affects your body, how to follow the DASH diet for healthier BP, and heart-healthy lifestyle tweaks to start today.