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How to Understand Your Vital Signs

September 17, 2020

The vital signs monitor is a lightweight medical device that can give elaborate information about the patient’s health and wellbeing. The vital signs monitor shows whether the body is working normally as it can provide information about the heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, temperature, and respiration rate. There are also some advanced vital sign monitors that can even check your blood glucose levels, exhaled CO₂ levels, and much more. These medical devices can be found all over hospitals, they are used in emergency rooms and for normal check-ups.  

Physiological patient monitoring has been in the works for ages. In the 1600s, Santorio Santorio was tinkering around and managed to create the pulsilogium. The pulsilogium was a medical device that was intended to measure the pulse rate. In 1950, a device called the cardiotachoscope was being used by Himmelstein and Scheiner during surgeries to record ECGs. It was only after the 1960s that on-screen information was made available on patient monitoring devices. Then in the 2000s, the devices were connected to the internet.  

During the patient’s stay at the hospital, it is important that health workers can monitor their health. The vital signs monitor will help the health workers decide which treatment is the best option for the patient. Therefore, the vital signs monitor can provide invaluable information about the patient.

Are my vital signs normal?

The healthy ranges for each vital sign will be different for each person depending on their gender, weight, age, and any underlying health complications. However, there are rough ranges for each vital sign.

Heart rate

The heart rate is the number of times the heart beats per minute. Adults usually have a resting heart rate in the region of 60 – 100 beats per minute (bpm). Healthier individuals will have a lower heart rate. As an example, athletes can have a heart rate between 40 – 60 bpm. 

Oxygen levels

Oxygen levels measure how much oxygen there is in the body. The healthy oxygen levels are in the range of 95% – 100%. If the blood oxygen levels are less than 90% this is indicative of hypoxia. In other words, the patient has very low levels of oxygen in their body.

Blood pressure

Blood pressure measures the force of blood in the blood vessels. There are usually two numbers about the blood pressure on the vital signs monitor, the diastolic pressure and systolic pressure. The systolic pressure is usually the first number; this is the blood pressure when the heart is actively beating. The second number is the diastolic pressure which provides information about the resting blood pressure. The blood pressure should be in the range of 100 – 130 (systolic pressure) and 60 – 80 (diastolic pressure). Anything lower or higher than these ranges will indicate hypertension or hypotension (both of which are bad for you).


The normal body temperature for an adult is around 98.6°F. Anything near to 100.4°F or higher is classed as a fever which means that the body is unable to regulate the temperature properly and so the body becomes too hot. A fever can result from an infection, heat exhaustion, or certain medications.

How are the vital signs measured?

The vital signs monitor comes with various accessories that are used to measure the vital signs. The patient’s blood pressure and heart rate can be measured when the patient wears the blood pressure cuff on their upper arm. The cuff will tighten around the patient’s arm and then slowly release. Then the patient’s blood pressure and heart rate will appear on the device screen.

The finger clip sensor is used to measure the SpO₂ (the oxygen levels). The nurse will place the finger clip on the patient’s index finger and then the oxygen levels will be recorded on the vital sign monitor. The blood pressure cuff and finger clip sensor should never be placed on the same side.

Vital sign monitors can also come with an inbuilt thermometer that can measure the patient’s temperature automatically.

The technology has come a long way since it was first developed. In the past, there were no colors and no onscreen values. Nowadays the patient’s data can be viewed on-screen, the monitors are touch-screen, the device is mobile, and the patient data can be uploaded to the online database easily.

Alternatively, some vital signs can be measured without using the vital signs monitor. John Hopkins Medicine has detailed in their article how this can be done.

My monitor is beeping, what does this mean?

If the patient’s vital signs are out of the normal range, the vital sign monitor will make a sound to alert the nurses. This feature has been designed so the nurses can come and check on the patient to see if they are doing ok. If the patient is not doing so well, the health workers can take appropriate action promptly.

It is important to note that the vital signs monitor can also start beeping if the accessories become loose or if there is a device fault. So, if the vital signs monitor begins making sounds, this doesn’t always mean there is immediate danger.

If the monitor does begin making the alert sounds and the nurse does not come to check on the patient, the patient should try to notify the nurses in the area.

Image reference Jair Lázaro on Unsplash

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