Low Blood Pressure (Hypotension) Signs and Symptoms
Published: 22 March 2020
Published: 22 March 2020
Hypotension can present with various symptoms: from nausea, dizziness to heart palpitations. Checking blood pressure is an important part of evaluating yourself or your patient.
Unfortunately, a problem doesn’t always announce itself with a fanfare of trumpets. Even the highest blood pressure can be entirely asymptomatic. Similarly, low blood pressure (also known as hypotension) can occur in your patient, despite no symptoms seemingly being present. This is particularly true if the patient is lying still in an unmonitored bed.
In general, hypotension can be thought of as a rate, pump or volume problem. Examples of these include:
Of course, the easiest way to know your patient has a blood pressure problem is by simply taking their pressure, but in some cases you may notice other symptoms that prompt you to check a pressure and find that it is low.
Low blood pressure should be evaluated and treated urgently.
Assessment of a low blood pressure should include a recheck of the pressure and close monitoring. If a client has recently changed positions, they should be returned to a supine position and then rechecked in a few minutes.
The best objective symptom of a low blood pressure is taking an actual pressure and getting low numbers. It sounds obvious, but it may not occur to you to take a pressure when a patient complains of certain symptoms.
When a patient does complain, however, it is usually recommended that you get a complete set of vitals, and this will point to a problem with low blood pressure. How low is too low? What does low actually mean? It can mean different things for different patients.
The usual metric for measuring low blood pressure is that anything below 90/60 mmHg (millimetres of mercury) (Healthdirect Australia 2018) is considered low enough to treat. You can also have symptoms of low blood pressure when someone with hypertension comes down from very high pressures. For instance, 120/80 mmHg may be normal for everyone else, but if your patient lives at 190/100 mmHg, they are going to feel the difference. For this reason, the objective sign of a pressure must be combined with the subjective symptoms the patient reports.
Subjective symptoms are those that the patient may report, though you may be able to see objective signs of these as well.
With low blood pressure, the patient may feel faint or lose consciousness. This is due to lack of blood flow to the brain, and usually laying the patient supine will help raise blood pressure and reduce symptoms. This could be accompanied by a dizzy feeling and light-headedness. Generally, your patient will report trouble focusing, difficulty keeping upright and lack of coordination (American Heart Association 2017).
Your patient may also report nausea and could possibly vomit from the low blood pressure. In addition, heart palpitations are sometimes felt, and these can be easily seen with the use of telemetry or other monitoring. EKGs/ECGs may or may not show them, depending on the frequency and timing of the palpitations.
Some patients may also exhibit confusion, and this can make them seem like they are suffering from intoxication or some other neurological problem. Blurred vision is usually reported with extreme cases of low blood pressure. There are many other symptoms of low blood pressure to look out for.
Orthostasis literally means standing upright. Orthostatic hypotension, or postural hypotension, is defined as a decrease in systolic blood pressure of at least 20 mmHg or at least 10 mmHg within 3 minutes of the patient standing. If orthostatic hypotension is present, the client may be at risk of falls and should be closely supervised with ambulation or advised to call for assistance with activity.
To test for orthostatic hypotension, take the blood pressure whilst the patient is supine and at rest. Then stand the patient – they must be able to stand for 3 minutes before taking the blood pressure again. If the measurements meet the criteria stated previously, then orthostatic hypotension is evident. If the result is equivocol, record it and request a formal assessment. (Note, the accuracy of orthostatic hypotension has been questioned in recent years.)
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