Patient's Guide to Vital Signs | Tim Fish, RN MBA DNP CENP | RxEconsult

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Patient's Guide to Vital Signs Category: Healthcare Practice by - October 26, 2011 | Views: 44179 | Likes: 0 | Comment: 0  

You know the drill, your name is called to come back to see the doctor. You are quickly seated, a pressure cuff is wrapped around your arm, a probe stuck in your mouth, and your wrist is grabbed. Your vital signs are being collected, but what is really happening?

There are typically four vital signs that are tracked. These include Temperature, Pulse, Respirations and Blood Pressure.


This is one of the most well recognized vital signs. Probe temperature readings are common and often are taken in the mouth, armpit, or rectum. There are also a few new techniques to take a temperature. The Tympanic Membrane Temperature, or an “Ear Thermometer” measures core body temperature. Elevated temperature can be a sign of infection.


The pulse is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. The pulse is typically taken at the wrist. However, a pulse can be felt in many places throughout the body. Occasionally a pulse is taken with a stethoscope by listening on the back or chest for the rate. Unusually high or low pulse rates may be cause for concern. However, a high pulse may just mean you are excited or scared, whereas a low pulse rate may be sign of extraordinary fitness (athletes often have low pulse rates).


The number of times a person breathes in a minute is trickier to count than one may think. When a person pays attention to their breathing pattern, it will often change. Healthcare professionals will watch the number of times the shoulders rises and falls while they are taking a pulse, or count with a stethoscope while the heart is being listened to. As with pulse, an unusually high or low breathing rate may be cause for concern.

Blood Pressure

This vital sign has become very popular over the last several decades and is often linked with serious health conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Blood pressure is measured in two numbers, a “systolic blood pressure (SBP)” over a “diastolic blood pressure (DBP)” value. If you hold out a fist, relaxed, then squeeze quickly and relax again you begin to get a sense of blood pressure. The systolic number is the measurement when the heart contracts (fist squeezed) and pushes blood out to the rest of your body. The “systolic wave”, or the blood pushed out during the contraction, can be felt on your wrist as the pulse. The diastolic reading is your heart at rest (fist relaxed) and refills with blood. Both numbers are important, however the diastolic number represents the only time your heart rests. A single high or low blood pressure reading should not be cause for concern (unless your doctor feels it is very high or low). It is important to determine a trend over time.


There may be many reasons that causes a person’s vital signs fluctuate. Always make certain to discuss with your healthcare provider what values are appropriate for you.

Collecting your vital signs is the first step in putting together the big picture of your overall condition. A single value is always considered by your healthcare professional along with the rest of your examination. A high or low value may give your healthcare professional direction on what else should be checked. Vital signs are important to understand for your health, not only when you are sick, but for ongoing wellness.

The following table can be used as a quick reference for normal adult vital sign values:


This article is for information only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a qualified health care provider.


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