Blood pressure is an essential metric that can help determine the risk for several health concerns and diseases. The often-hidden side effects of high blood pressure make it hard to know when intervention is needed, and this is why hypertension is commonly called “the silent killer.”
Digital blood pressure monitors are an excellent at-home solution for monitoring your health, especially if you have an underlying condition that needs regular blood pressure readings. By taking your own blood pressure readings regularly and recording changes over time, you can be prepared to manage your health in the long run.
What is a Blood Pressure Monitor?
Blood pressure monitors (a.k.a. sphygmomanometers or blood pressure gauges) are medical devices that allow people to check their blood pressure levels and record their readings anywhere at any time. Digital blood pressure monitors are designed for home use, and people can use them independently. While many nurses and medical professionals use a stethoscope to listen to blood pressure manually, digital blood pressure monitors measure blood pressure using oscillometric technology, which measures the vibration of blood traveling through the arteries and converting the movement into digital readings.
Digital blood pressure monitors often come with a monitor (where the control buttons and screen that reveal the readings can be seen) and a cuff for the upper arm or wrist. It’s best to use one with upper arm cuffs since they provide more accurate readings than wrist cuffs.
Types of Blood Pressure Monitors
There are two main types of blood pressure monitors available: aneroid (manual) and digital blood pressure monitors.
1. Aneroid monitors
An aneroid monitor manually checks blood pressure. It has a gauge and dial that the user reads by looking at a pointer on the dial. It also has upper arm cuffs that are inflated by hand by squeezing a rubber bulb, and the cuff has a built-in stethoscope. A health professional has probably used an aneroid monitor on you to check your blood pressure during medical check-ups.
These blood pressure monitors are usually less expensive than digital ones. Still, they run the risk of being less accurate, especially if you’re using them without the assistance of another person. It can also be hard to use for some if it doesn’t have a metal ring to tighten the cuff. Also, the rubber bulb that inflates the cuff may make it hard to squeeze. Aneroid monitors are also not recommended for hearing-impaired people because you need to listen to the heartbeat through a stethoscope.
When used correctly, aneroid monitors can be very accurate. However, they are not recommended for home use, and that’s why you will most likely see them used only by medical professionals.
2. Digital monitors
Nowadays, digital monitors are more popular for measuring blood pressure. This type of sphygmomanometer comes with a built-in stethoscope, gauge, and error indicator in the unit and displays blood pressure readings on a screen. They are often easier to use than aneroid units because they don’t need a separate stethoscope (so you don’t need to listen with your ears), they produce readings on a screen display, and you don’t need to squeeze some rubber bulb. Their reading display is a lot easier to read than a dial, which requires you to look carefully to get a proper reading. Some models even have a paper printout to give you a record of the reading.
Depending on the model, inflation of the cuff can be done manually or automatically. Meanwhile, deflation is always automatic. It’s also a good option for hearing-impaired patients since there’s no need to listen to a heartbeat through the stethoscope.
Some digital models come with color indicators to show where a blood pressure reading falls compared to normal ranges. Some come with voice reading capabilities, where the monitor tells you the reading and if it falls on the normal, low, or high range. Meanwhile, some come with additional features like the ability to show average readings, store readings, or display several readings taken within a specific time period.
However, digital monitors can be inaccurate due to body movements or an irregular heart rate. Also, some models only work on the left arm, making it hard for some patients to use. Digital monitors are also more expensive than aneroid monitors and require batteries.
How Accurate are Digital Blood Pressure Monitors?
Most digital blood pressure monitors are reliable for home use, and the one that will be most accurate for you is the one that you can use comfortably, consistently, and correctly. It’s also important to consider whether the monitor is cleared and clinically validated by the FDA to confirm its accuracy.
Digital blood pressure monitors can be fairly accurate, and there are things you can do in order to ensure that your readings are as accurate as possible. Do not smoke, drink caffeinated beverages, or exercise for at least 30 minutes before taking a blood pressure reading. Make sure you’re relaxed and sitting upright when using the blood pressure monitor. Also, using an arm cuff that fits you properly is essential since a too-small cuff can raise your blood pressure readings artificially.
Tips for Using a Digital Blood Pressure Monitor
- Refer to the instruction manual for your blood pressure monitor. Automatic models will have a cuff that inflates by itself with a push of a button, but manual models require you to inflate the cuff. After inflating, the device will slowly let the air out and show your blood pressure reading. Then, write down the measurement on your record if the device does not record the readings themselves. The systolic pressure goes in front of the diastolic pressure.
- Practice using the monitor with your doctor or nurse to ensure you can use it correctly at home.
- Before checking your blood pressure, make sure at least 30 minutes have passed after you have eaten, drank caffeine, or taken alcohol and tobacco products.
- Do not take blood pressure when you are under stress, have recently exercised, or are under intense emotions – these will all do inaccurate blood pressure readings.
- Make sure you have an empty bladder.
- Rest and do not talk while you’re taking your reading
- Your arm must be supported, with your upper arm at heart level and your feet on the floor. Your legs must be uncrossed and your back supported to make a more accurate measurement.
- If you need to repeat your readings, wait 2-3 minutes before retaking your blood pressure.
Factors to Consider When Looking for a Blood Pressure Monitor
When looking for a blood pressure monitor for home use, consider the following factors:
Perhaps the most important characteristic a blood pressure monitor must have is its ability to consistently give accurate readings. It must be clinically validated and tested for accuracy by independent organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, the International Protocol for the Validation of Automated Blood Pressure Measuring Devices, and the British and Irish Hypertension Society.
Also, check if the Food and Drug Administration clears the device to make sure that it meets the criteria for blood pressure cuff devices. User error can significantly affect accuracy, so make sure to follow the product instructions exactly as they are written.
Data display is another important factor, especially for people with vision problems and impairments and older adults. A blood pressure monitor with a clear, simple, and easy-to-read display can help prevent misunderstanding your readings. There are some devices that offer audio readouts, and you may also want to look into those.
If you want, you can use blood pressure monitors to track your blood pressure readings over time. Some models come with data storage – some devices can only store around 30 readings, while others can store as many as 2,000. Think about your storage needs before buying one because those with bigger data storage can be expensive.
Also, there are now monitors that sync with smartphone apps and then provide additional data storage outside the device itself. If you know your way around smartphones, choosing a Bluetooth-compatible monitor with app-based data storage is a good idea.
However, some blood pressure monitors only store data for one user, while others support data for multiple users. If you plan to share your sphygmomanometer with another person in your household, look for a device with storage for multiple readings.
A blood pressure monitor won’t be helpful for you (and you probably won’t use it often) if it does not fit your lifestyle or capability to use it and if it doesn’t feel intuitive. Consider the setup of the device if it’s easy to use. If you’re tech-savvy, you may benefit from a device that includes features like app connectivity, Bluetooth, and ample data storage for readings. But if you think it’s not the best option for you and you don’t regularly use a smartphone, a simple, no-frills model can be more helpful for you.
If your doctor advises you to take blood pressure every day, you’ll want to find a device that’s travel-friendly, especially if you’re not at home all the time. There are a lot of blood pressure monitors that are lightweight and compact, and some even come with a carrying case.
The American Heart Association recommends automatic, bicep (upper arm), cuff-style monitors. They advise against using wrist or finger monitors as they give off less reliable readings. It’s best to measure your upper arm and choose a monitor that comes with a right-sized cuff. And if you have mobility issues, you will benefit the most with a cuff that keeps its shape and doesn’t need a lot of strength and effort to wrap it around your arm.
Beyond the basic blood pressure readings, some blood pressure monitors include special features, including:
- Pulse monitoring
- Irregular heartbeat indication
- Wireless, battery-operated design for on-the-go use
- Color-coded readings to make it easier to track blood pressure stages
- Pre-formed arm cuffs for a more comfortable fit
The price of a blood pressure monitor depends on the type and its features. They usually cost around $30 to $100, and some may require additional costs for batteries or accessories, like a larger or smaller arm cuff.
If you have insurance, sometimes blood pressure monitors are covered, especially if you need dialysis at home. Some insurance providers have special programs for people with hypertension, making these accessible for beneficiaries who are eligible. Check with your insurance provider what coverage they offer and see if you are qualified.