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Monitoring Blood Pressure at Home

If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, known medically as hypertension, your doctor may recommend that you use a home monitor to check your blood pressure between visits.
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High blood pressure has been called the "silent killer." The name may seem grandiose, but it's unfortunately accurate: High blood pressure has no symptoms and it can lead to life-threatening illnesses, strokes, and heart attacks. While 50 million people in the U.S. are estimated to have high blood pressure, as many as a third of them may not know it.

If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, known medically as hypertension, your doctor may recommend that you use a home monitor to check your blood pressure between visits. Despite what you might think, devices that you can buy in the drugstore or at the mall can be reliable, accurate, and affordable. But there are a lot of monitors out there, and it's crucial to get a good one.

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What Kind Should I Use?

Of the different types available, Sheldon Sheps, MD, emeritus professor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, says that you should get only an electronic one with a digital display. The other kinds -- such as aneroid or mercury devices -- require training with a stethoscope to get accurate readings.

"The automated electronic equipment is very simple to use and very reliable," says Michael Weber, MD, Professor of Medicine at the SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn. "They're so accurate that many clinical trials are now actually using the same blood pressure machines that you can buy from the drugstore."

However, of these electronic devices, Weber and Sheps urge you to get a device that measures your blood pressure with a cuff around the arm. Don't buy one that works on the wrist, and definitely avoid finger blood pressure monitors, since they are especially unreliable.

A good device costs between $40-$60, although models with additional features are pricier. Some offer a self-inflated cuff, which saves you the trouble of pumping it up yourself. Other devices have a memory of previous readings, and some even print a record each time you use it. Sheps observes that a company's line of devices will often all use the same microchip, so a no-frills model is often as accurate as a more expensive one made by the same company.

Of the extra features, Weber and Sheps suggest getting the self-inflating cuff. For one, pumping it up may be difficult for people with arthritis. "And pumping is a muscular activity," says Sheps, "so it can actually affect your blood pressure reading."

One of the most important things to consider when buying a device is to make sure that the cuff fits your arm. If it's too small or too big, you won't get correct readings. As a rule of thumb, make sure that the cuff fits easily around your arm with fabric to spare. If the cuff that comes with your monitor doesn't fit, you may be able to get a larger one from a drugstore or directly from the manufacturer.

And don't forget to shop around. "The same device may cost twice as much at a medical supply store as it does at a chain store," says Sheps.

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