Blood pressure is the pressure of the fluid (blood) against the walls of the blood vessels. Fluid will move from areas of high to low hydrostatic pressures. In the arteries, the hydrostatic pressure near the heart is very high. Blood flows to the arterioles (smaller arteries) where the rate of flow is slowed by the narrow openings of the arterioles. The systolic pressure is defined as the peak pressure in the arteries during the cardiac cycle; the diastolic pressure is the lowest pressure at the resting phase of the cardiac cycle. During systole, when new blood is entering the arteries, the artery walls stretch to accommodate the increase of pressure of the extra blood. During diastole, the walls return to normal because of their elastic properties.
Blood pressure values are universally stated in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). The blood pressure of the systole phase and the diastole phase gives the two readings for blood pressure (Figure 1). For example, the typical value for a resting, healthy adult is 120/80, which indicates a reading of 120 mm Hg during the systole and 80 mm Hg during diastole.
Blood Pressure Regulation
Throughout the cardiac cycle, the blood continues to empty into the arterioles at a relatively even rate. However, these measures of blood pressure are not static; they undergo natural variations from one heartbeat to another and throughout the day. The measures of blood pressure also change in response to stress, nutritional factors, drugs, or disease. The body regulates blood pressure by changes in response to the cardiac output and stroke volume.
Cardiac output is the volume of blood pumped by the heart in one minute. It is calculated by multiplying the number of heart contractions that occur per minute (heart rate) times the stroke volume (the volume of blood pumped into the aorta per contraction of the left ventricle). Therefore, cardiac output can be increased by increasing heart rate, as when exercising. However, cardiac output can also be increased by increasing stroke volume, such as if the heart were to contract with greater strength. Stroke volume can also be increased by speeding blood circulation through the body so that more blood enters the heart between contractions. During heavy exertion, the blood vessels relax and increase in diameter, offsetting the increased heart rate and ensuring adequate oxygenated blood gets to the muscles. Stress triggers a decrease in the diameter of the blood vessels, consequently increasing blood pressure. These changes can also be caused by nerve signals or hormones; even standing up or lying down can have a great effect on blood pressure.