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Measuring Blood Pressure, Two Arms Are Better Than One

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Odds are that when your doctor takes your blood pressure, he or she measures it in only one arm. Yet, guidelines from the American Heart Association have for some time recommended measuring blood pressure in both arms at a patient's initial visit -- and findings from a recent study suggest why clinicians should routinely perform the two-arm measurement. The study, published in The Lancet, found that a substantial difference in blood pressure readings between arms indicates an increased risk of developing vascular disease and of dying of heart disease. 

A gap between arms in readings of systolic pressure -- the top number in the reading, which measures pressure in the arteries when the heart muscle contracts, or beats -- can reveal impaired blood flow stemming from vascular diseases, specifically peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and cerebrovascular disease. 

When researchers analyzed data from 20 studies involving 16,428 people, they found that a difference of 15 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater between arms was associated with more than twice the risk of developing PAD when compared with people who had smaller systolic variations. PAD occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries (atherosclerosis), mostly affecting the legs. The blockages, similar to coronary artery disease, increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

The study analysis also showed that a difference of 15 mm Hg or more was associated with underlying cerebrovascular disease caused by atherosclerosis in the arteries that deliver blood to the brain, which can lead to stroke or dementia. People in the study with at least a 15 mm Hg difference had a 60 percent increased risk of suffering from the disease. 

The difference of 15 mm Hg or more was also associated with a heightened likelihood of premature death from heart disease or another medical condition. And the number of people showing such a gap wasn't insignificant. In one study the researchers analyzed for the Lancet study, up to 7 percent of participants had a difference of 15 mm Hg or higher.

Take away. But another compelling reason to check for a pressure difference between arms is to accurately identify the presence of hypertension, or high blood pressure. If a clinician measures blood pressure in only one arm, and the blood pressure is lower in that arm than in the other, he or she may miss hypertension. For that reason, as well as for potentially identifying a sign of vascular disease, having your blood pressure measured in both arms is certainly worth discussing with your doctor at your next visit.  

Posted in Hypertension and Stroke on May 15, 2012


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Health Alerts registered users may post comments and share experiences here at their own discretion. We regret that questions on individual health concerns to the Johns Hopkins editors cannot be answered in this space.

The views expressed here do not constitute medical advice, and do not represent the position of Johns Hopkins Medicine or Remedy Health Media, LLC, which has no responsibility for any comments posted on this site.


I have had high blood pressure issues for 12 years and obese as well. I am trying to come up with a list of HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE MEDICINE that cause you to gain weight, any ideals.

Posted by: kimchi | June 20, 2012 2:25 PM

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