Should you get an at-home blood pressure monitor?

Heart Health
man checking blood pressure at home

Every time you visit the doctor, you'll get your blood pressure taken. It's so common that you probably don't even think twice when they place the cuff around your arm to get your blood pressure reading.

Your blood pressure — or how hard your blood is pushing up against your artery walls — provides significant insight into how well your heart is working as well as your overall health.

"If you have high blood pressure, that puts you at risk of heart disease and stroke. It also can damage other organs, like your brain, eyes and kidneys," Michael Tobin, MD, cardiologist at Lankenau Heart Institute, part of Main Line Health.

The problem is — most people only get their blood pressure taken at health care visits. To monitor this aspect of your health from the comfort and convenience of your home, you may want to consider an at-home blood pressure monitor.

Here's a look at how at-home blood pressure monitors work, and if you might benefit from having one.

How does an at-home blood pressure monitor work?

A blood pressure monitor — also known as a sphygmomanometer — works by temporarily stopping the blood flow in your artery using the pressure from an arm cuff.

Once the blood starts flowing again, it provides two readings:

  1. Systolic blood pressure, which occurs at the first pounding of your heart.
  2. Diastolic blood pressure, which occurs when the pounding stops and the cuff's air pressure is below the blood pressure in the artery.

Together, these numbers make up your blood pressure. For instance, a normal blood pressure reading is below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic — or 120/80 mmHg.

There are two kinds of at-home blood pressure monitors: aneroid and digital.

An aneroid monitor is a manual blood pressure monitor. To use this device, you place the cuff around your upper arm, then squeeze the rubber bulb to inflate it manually. Getting your blood pressure reading requires you to use its gauge, which has a pointer on a dial.

"Aneroid monitors are typically less expensive than digital monitors, but they can easily be damaged, leading to less accurate readings. Also, since you need to listen to your heartbeat yourself using the built-in stethoscope, many patients might find this to be technically challenging," Dr. Tobin.

Digital monitors are more popular at-home blood pressure devices. They're easier to use because the blood pressure reading displays on a screen instead of a dial. There's also an error indicator for good measure. Some digital monitor cuffs inflate automatically, while others still need manual inflation. Most digital monitors can store readings so they can be reviewed later.

Who might benefit from at-home blood pressure monitoring?

Monitoring your blood pressure at home helps you keep an eye on trends rather than the few times you visit a health care provider each year.

You might benefit from regular at-home blood pressure monitoring if you:

At-home blood pressure monitors can also help you check for possible false readings. For instance, anxiety can make your readings higher at the doctor's office compared to at home (called "white coat" hypertension). On the other hand, some people find that they have high readings at home but not when visiting their providers (called "masked" hypertension.)

What if my blood pressure is variable?

Blood pressure changes throughout the day, even from minute to minute based on the needs of your body.

"When blood pressure is measured and evaluated for medical purposes, we're usually talking about ‘resting blood pressure,'" says Dr. Tobin, "but if you're not at rest, your blood pressure will be higher."

Physical activity, stress and pain are all common things that increase blood pressure throughout the day. For those with variable readings, it's important to get a sense of the full range of readings, and to be sure that blood pressure is taken when truly at rest.

How can I get accurate results from my at-home blood pressure monitor?

To get reliable readings from your at-home blood pressure monitor, start by bringing your monitor into your health care provider's office at least once a year. They can make sure it fits properly and that you're using it the right way.

Also, incorporate taking your blood pressure into your daily routine. For instance, you might take it first thing in the morning before you start your day.

"When it's time to take your blood pressure, avoid drinking caffeine, exercising, smoking and eating beforehand. Then, sit for 5 minutes without any distractions," says Dr. Tobin. "This includes everything from reading a book to watching television to listening to a podcast."

Once you're calm:

  1. Sit in a chair with your back supported.
  2. Put your feet flat on the floor, and don't cross your legs.
  3. Place your bare upper arm at heart level, and make sure it's supported.
  4. Face your palm up and relax your arm muscles.
  5. Avoid talking.

Take two blood pressure readings, at least a minute apart. Be sure to write down your readings in a log so you can bring them into your next visit with your provider.

If any blood pressure readings are too high or too low — which should be guided by conversations with your health care provider — follow their instructions on how to proceed.

Managing your heart health with an at-home blood pressure monitor

Prioritizing your heart health is not a one-time thing. It requires ongoing dedication, including heart-healthy lifestyle choices, like eating healthy, exercising regularly and not smoking. In some cases, it also means at-home blood pressure monitoring.

With a quick blood pressure reading each day, you can monitor your heart's health and set this hard-working organ up for success.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Michael Tobin, MD
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