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Principles and techniques of blood pressure measurement

Although the mercury sphygmomanometer is widely regarded as the “gold standard” for office blood pressure measurement, the ban on use of mercury devices continues to diminish their role in office and hospital settings. To date, mercury devices have largely been phased out in US hospitals. This has led to the proliferation of non-mercury devices and has changed (probably for ever) the preferable modality of blood pressure measurement in clinic and hospital settings. In this article, the basic techniques of blood pressure measurement and the technical issues associated with measurements in clinical practice are discussed. The devices currently available for hospital and clinic measurements and their important sources of error are presented. Practical advice is given on how the different devices and measurement techniques should be used. Blood pressure measurements in different circumstances and in special populations such as infants, children, pregnant women, elderly persons, and obese subjects are discussed.

The standard location for blood pressure measurement is the brachial artery. Arm blood pressure monitor that measure pressure at the wrist and fingers have become popular, but it is important to realize that systolic and diastolic pressures vary substantially in different parts of the arterial tree with systolic pressure increasing in more distal arteries, and diastolic pressure decreasing.

The auscultatory method

Although the auscultatory method using mercury sphygmomanometer is regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for office blood pressure measurement, widespread implementation of the ban in use of mercury sphygmomanometers continues to diminish the role of this technique.72 The situation is made worse by the fact that existing aneroid manometers, which use this technique, are less accurate and often need frequent calibration.72 New devices known, as “hybrid” sphygmomanometers, have been developed as replacement for mercury devices. Basically, these devices combine the features of both electronic and auscultatory devices such that the mercury column is replaced by an electronic pressure gauge, similar to oscillometric devices, but the blood pressure is taken in the same manner as a mercury or aneroid device, by an observer using a stethoscope and listening for the Korotkoff sounds.72

The oscillometric technique

This was first demonstrated by Marey in 1876,38 and it was subsequently shown that when the oscillations of pressure in a sphygmomanometer cuff are recorded during gradual deflation, the point of maximal oscillation corresponds to the mean intra-arterial pressure.32,39,97 The oscillations begin at approximately systolic pressure and continue below diastolic (Fig. 1), so that systolic and diastolic pressure can only be estimated indirectly according to some empirically derived algorithm. This method is advantageous in that no transducer need be placed over the brachial artery, and it is less susceptible to external noise (but not to low frequency mechanical vibration), and that the cuff can be removed and replaced by the patient during ambulatory monitoring, for example, to take a shower. The main disadvantage is that such recorders do not work well during physical activity when there may be considerable movement artifact. The oscillometric technique has been used successfully in ambulatory blood pressure monitors and home monitors. It should be pointed out that different brands of oscillometric recorders use different algorithms, and there is no generic oscillometric technique. Comparisons of several different commercial models with intra-arterial and Korotkoff sound measurements, however, have shown generally good agreement.

Devices incorporating this technique use an ultrasound transmitter and receiver placed over the brachial artery under a sphygmomanometer cuff. As the cuff is deflated, the movement of the arterial wall at systolic pressure causes a Doppler phase shift in the reflected ultrasound, and diastolic pressure is recorded as the point at which diminution of arterial motion occurs. Another variation of this method detects the onset of blood flow at systolic pressure, which has been found to be of particular value for measuring pressure in infants and children.18 In patients with very faint Korotkoff sounds (for example those with muscular atrophy) placing a Doppler probe over the brachial artery may help to detect the systolic pressure, and the same technique can be used for measuring the ankle-brachial index, in which the systolic pressures in the brachial artery and the posterior tibial artery are compared, to obtain an index of peripheral arterial disease.

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