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Vital Vitals

Quick: what are the four main vital signs?  You remember, the things we use to measure the body’s basic functions?  The things we use to help establish our physical health or detect signs of disease or illness or plot the recovery progress?  You know you know them.

The four main vital signs are

  1. Body temperature
  2. Breathing rate
  3. Pulse (that’s heart rate)
  4. Blood pressure

Ah, right.  Those things.  They seem sort of quaint, somehow, in this era of other-worldly medical technology and elaborately compartmentalized health testing, but these homely signs remain valid – in a word, vital.  And if your 2012 resolutions involve fitness (is there anything else?), a good understanding of your vitals is…vital.

The normal ranges for our vital signs vary with gender, age, weight and general overall health.  Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Body temperature.  Measured in all sorts of ways, some more embarrassing and invasive than others, including the insertion of a thermometer into the anus, mouth, under the armpit or into the ear canal, the average human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  The normal range is anywhere between 97.8 and 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit, or even slightly higher.

A temperature higher than a person’s average temperature is considered to be a fever.  A body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit is textbook hypothermia.  A variety of factors other than illness or infection can affect body temperature, including exercise, stress, dehydration, drinking a hot or cold beverage, being in a hot or cold setting, or thyroid disorders.  Older adults may be ill without showing any signs of a fever.

Breathing or respiratory rate.  This is simply the number of breaths someone takes per minute.  The normal adult respiration rate at rest is from 12 to 20 breaths per minute.  A breathing rate under 12 or above 25 breaths per minute while at rest is considered abnormal.  Conditions that change the normal breathing rate include anxiety, asthma, pneumonia, congestive heart failure, use of narcotics, lung disease or a drug overdose.

Pulse.  The pulse is the number of times a person’s heart beats per minute, and this varies from one individual to the next.  A normal pulse rate for a healthy adult at rest ranges from 60 to 80 beats per minute.  The pulse is, obviously, lower when we rest and increases when we exercise, when the body needs more oxygen-rich blood.

The pulse is measured by firmly pressing the first and second fingertips against specific points on the body – at the wrist or neck, usually, but also at the bend of the arms, behind the knees, in the groin, inside the ankles, on the top of the feet or at the temples of the face – and then counting the number of heart beats over sixty seconds.  If you are taking your own pulse, the rate should not routinely be less than 60 beats per minute.  No beats should be missed or skipped,  they should be spaced evenly, and not too strong, either.  Beats that are really, really strong might be a sign that a heart is working too hard.

A lower than average pulse may be a sign of a heart condition. Some medications, including beta blockers and digoxin, sometimes slow the pulse.  A faster than average pulse may indicate infection, stress, anxiety, dehydration, shock, anemia, certain heart conditions or a thyroid disorder.

Blood pressure.  This is the measurement of the pressure or force of blood against the walls of the body’s arteries.  Written as two numbers, healthy blood pressure for an adult, relaxed at rest, is considered to be less than 120/80 mm Hg.  The first number is the systolic pressure, measuring the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats and pushes blood out to the body.  The second number is the diastolic pressure and measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between beats.

A systolic (first number) pressure of 120-139, or a diastolic (second number) pressure between 80-89 is considered to be ‘pre-hypertension’ and should be closely monitored.  Hypertension, high blood pressure, is considered to be a reading of 140/90 mm Hg. or higher.  High blood pressure over an extended period can lead to heart failure, stroke or atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries.

There are a number of factors that can influence a blood pressure reading:

  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Exercise
  • Cold temperatures
  • A full stomach
  • A full bladder
  • Caffeine or alcohol consumption
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Certain medications
  • Salt intake

If you are taking your own blood pressure, keep these factors in mind.  If someone else is taking your blood pressure, be sure he or she knows about any of these things that might affect the readings.  And you already know this, but handy as they are, those blood pressure stations at the grocery store and pharmacy are not going to give you particularly accurate readings on any given day.  They are kind of fun to use, though. 

Special thanks clevelandclinic.org.

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