The Medical Test You Can Do Yourself

"Doc, you won't believe what my primary care doctor had in his exam room..."

During a recent visit to her doctor, one of my researchers was thrilled to see a printed list taped to the wall. On it were all of the tests and procedures with an A or B rating from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

If you remember from our essay on cancer screenings, the USPSTF is a panel of 16 MDs and PhDs whose specialties range from behavioral health to pediatrics. These experts look at the research and make recommendations on the usefulness of screenings, counseling services, and preventative medications.

They assign grades based on solid medical evidence. A, the highest rating, means the USPSTF recommends the screening because the benefit is high. The B rating means the same, except that the net benefit is moderate to high.

We use the USPSTF rulings for guidance. Since they're based on evidence, they tend to do a thorough job of covering what to consider.

And one of the best A-grade screenings is not only life-saving, but one you can easily do yourself.

I'm talking about blood-pressure screening.

High blood pressure has earned the nickname "the Silent Killer." Symptoms often emerge too late to avoid dire (even fatal) health consequences. One of the first signs can be a stroke.

If your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, then you have high blood pressure. The problem is, you can't detect high blood pressure without screening. Your pressure can slowly rise over time, doing damage to your internal organs, including your brain... completely unnoticed. This makes screening for high blood pressure essential.

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Screening is pretty standard. At any doctor's visit, it's one of the vitals they take. A blood-pressure monitor usually involves a cuff that goes over your arm and inflates and deflates. It measures the pressure in your arteries when the heart beats (the top number) and the pressure in between beats (the bottom number).

Now, sometimes you may get a high reading that's an isolated incident. Stress and caffeine both increase blood-pressure numbers artificially.

In fact, something I've seen myself is a phenomenon called "white coat syndrome." This happens when you experience stress or anxiety from going to the doctor. The sight of a "white coat" (like the kind docs wear) is enough to stress you out and raise your blood pressure.

But, if you find you do have high blood pressure, know that there are plenty of ways to take control of it without immediately going on medications.

1) Make sure you follow healthy lifestyle guidelines. Exercise regularly – at least 30 minutes, five days a week. I like to take a 30-minute walk every day to get my exercise in. Eat more vegetables (especially green, leafy veggies), fish, and whole foods. Cut out fatty foods and those I call "white killers" (white flour, white potatoes, white sugar). Some foods that reduce blood pressure are dark chocolate, eggs, wine, olive oil, and foods high in potassium.

2) Cut the caffeine. Along with stress, caffeine can raise your blood pressure. Remember not to have that morning coffee before going to the doctor for a test or before taking one at your local drugstore. You might also consider cutting multiple cups down to just one or two a day.

3) Keep track of your blood pressure. Start a log of your blood-pressure readings. Write your test results down at the doctor's office. If you get a high-pressure reading, wait a few days and try it again.

Fortunately, you don't need to spend time at a doctor's office to monitor your blood pressure. Many stores like Rite Aid, Walgreens, and many Wal-Mart pharmacies have blood-pressure monitors in the store. I regularly roll up my sleeve and use these monitors to check my blood pressure.

Also, try to sit calmly for a few minutes before you take the test. If one of your readings shows your blood pressure is high, don't panic. Take the test again in a couple days or at a different store. If it's still high, ask someone at the pharmacy how often they calibrate the machine. (They should at least once per year.)

Finally, do what I do – meditate regularly. This can quickly relieve sensations of stress. After a few months of regular meditation, research shows you can lower your blood pressure by at least 10 points without visiting a doctor or using medications. Try meditating before getting your blood pressure checked as well... and even during the test itself. The results will surprise you.

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