What are the 6 Vital Signs? A Medical Assisting Guide

Interested in becoming a medical assistant and want to know more about vital signs? Vital signs are important for the early diagnosis of disorders and diseases. Vitals are also used to determine the correct medication and dosage for each patient. The vital signs a medical assistant administers during a patient visit include blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate, height and weight.

The first time a patient visits a doctor, the medical assistant takes their vitals. This is to establish a baseline. Vitals are also taken after specific procedures, to check for disorders like heart disease and when the individual is taking medication. Also every time the patient visits the doctor, vital signs are taken to reveal any trends in the health of the patient.

Vital Sign #1: Blood Pressure

The force the blood places against the arteries is called blood pressure. Blood pressure is taken by placing a cuff around the arm. A pump inflates the cuff to cut off circulation. The cuff is then gradually deflated by a valve to determine blood pressure.

There are two numbers displayed when blood pressure is measured. The pressure in the arteries when blood is pumped throughout the body is the higher number. Artery pressure when the body is resting is the lower number. If the numbers are too high, it is much harder for the arteries to resist the blood flow. A normal blood pressure depends on the person, age and lifestyle but will be approximately 120/80.

When blood pressure is abnormal, it is a sign there is an underlying issue such as heart disease. This can result in a medical emergency including a stroke. Consistently monitoring blood pressure is important because the physician can determine if medical treatment is necessary or if the person needs to make changes in their lifestyle.

Vital Sign #2: Body Temperature

A patient’s temperature can be taken under the tongue or through the armpit, anus or ear by using a thermometer. The temperature is displayed in either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

When the body temperature is irregular, it is often a sign of infection. Even if the individual is feeling good, body temperature can detect an infection before it spreads. When the body temperature fluctuates, it is an indication there may be a medical issue. When normal, the ideal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, it is considered normal. Body temperature is affected by the surrounding temperature and the weight, gender and age of the person.

Body temperature is adjusted by a section of the brain called the hypothalamus. If there is a virus within the body, a signal is sent to this part of the brain by the immune system to increase the temperature of the body so the infection can be weakened. When the body is fighting a virus, the early signs include clamminess and sweating. Monitoring the body temperature enables preventative measures to be taken to detect and prevent any potentially serious issues from spreading.

Vital Sign #3: Heart Rate

The rate at which the heart beats is called a pulse. The most common way for a medical assistant to check heart rate is by placing the middle and pointer fingers on the inside of the wrist below the thumb. Other places on the body to measure heart rate include the neck and on the base of the foot. The number of beats is counted for 15 seconds. This number is multiplied by four to determine the heart rate.

The heart rate is a good indication of the emotional wellbeing, fitness level and heart health of every patient. The heart rate shows the physician the number of times the heart beats every minute. When the body is at rest, a healthy heart rate is 60 to 100 beats every minute. The heart rate can be tracked through the use of monitoring devices to determine the patient’s average heart rate. There is a wide range of causes for fluctuations of the heart rate including:

  • Chronic stress
  • Age
  • Medications
  • Dehydration
  • Smoking
  • Excess caffeine
  • Air temperature
  • Inactivity
  • Emotions

When a physician is aware a patient has a high heart rate, steps can be taken to help ensure the heart remains healthy. This can decrease the risk of numerous medical issues including cardiovascular disease.

Vital Sign #4: Respiration

The respiratory rate is the number of times a person breathes per minute. To determine the rate, the number of breaths taken for one minute is counted according to how many times the chest rises.

Monitoring respiration is important for the detection of early signs of allergies or respiratory illness. A common cause of increased respiration levels is an infection. When respirations levels are tracked consistently, an illness can be detected before the entire body becomes infected. This enables the physician to prescribe treatment before the illness becomes advanced.

Vital Signs #5 & #6:  Height and Weight

A medical assistant will use a stadiometer to measure a patient’s height. A stadiometer is a device attached to a wall similar to a ruler. A sliding piece is adjusted to rest on top of the head to determine the height. Numerous types of scales are used to record body weight.

Weight and height are two of the best means of evaluating the overall health of a patient. When there are abnormal changes in weight and height it is a strong indication there is a medical issue. A fluctuation in height is a symptom of bone loss. This increases the risk of osteoporosis as the person ages.

There are many issues associated with a change in weight. This includes everything from poor lifestyle habits to underlying medical issues such as thyroid disease. A medical assistant checks weight and height and understands the average for the gender and age of the patient. This helps the patient improve their overall wellbeing by making healthy changes in their lifestyle.

What Disorders and Diseases Can be Detected Through Vital Signs?

Each vital sign can help detect any medical issues the patient is experiencing. Fluctuations in any vital sign can be a symptom of a serious medical condition.

Body Temperature

Numerous issues can be detected through fluctuations in body temperature. The doctor can determine if the medication is effective through body temperature. Hypothermia is an extremely low body temperature triggered by exposure to extreme cold. Whereas the opposite, hyperthermia is an extremely high body temperature triggered by exposure to extreme heat.

When the body temperature is extremely high or low, it is an indication the body may be in distress. A physician can use the medical history of the patient to determine if there is a reason to be concerned or if the issue can be resolved using a standard treatment.

Heart Rate

There are often fluctuations in heart rate due to illness, exercise, emotions and injury. Heart rate can also be impacted by athleticism, gender and age. Changes in heart rate are common as the patient ages. When the changes are either unexpected or too excessive, it is an indication a medical issue such as a heart condition. There are a variety of conditions determined by heart rate including:

  • Over or under-active thyroid
  • Excessive caffeine
  • Over hydration or dehydration
  • High-stress levels

If the patient does not receive enough exercise, their heart rate is unable to decrease to a normal beat as quickly as normal after intense activity. Also, heart rate can be affected by new or changed medication.

Respiration Rate

A change in respiration rate that is abnormal can indicate an underlying condition requiring treatment. An increased respiratory rate is caused by many factors. Respiratory rates can increase due to asthma attacks. Even if the increase is very small, it can be an indication of a worsening condition. When a person has a fever, their breathing often becomes quicker in an attempt to lose body heat. Rapid breathing can be triggered by dehydration. Infections including pneumonia and flu can also lead to rapid breathing. When the respiration rate decreases, it can indicate an issue. The potential causes include:

  • Medications
  • Illegal or prescribed narcotics
  • Alcohol use

Sleep apnea often causes the individual to stop breathing during the night. This can include episodes of elevated and decreased breathing.

High Blood Pressure

The diagnosis of high blood pressure is called hypertension. This condition often goes unnoticed. This is because the individual does not usually have any symptoms. If not diagnosed and treated, high blood pressure can lead to numerous common medical issues including:

  • Stroke
  • Aneurysm
  • Issues with understanding or memory
  • Heart failure or heart attack

Low blood pressure is not nearly as common of a condition as high blood pressure. Under normal circumstances, a person is healthier if their blood pressure is lower. There are no guidelines currently suggesting a person’s blood pressure can be too low. If blood pressure is consistently low due and accompanied by any of the following symptoms the situation is considered high-risk. Low blood pressure can result in:

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Depression
  • Unusual thirst or dehydration
  • Issues with concentration
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Shallow or rapid breathing
  • Fainting
  • Pale, clammy or cold skin
  • Nausea

There are two significant blood pressure numbers, systolic and diastolic. Systolic is generally considered the more significant number by doctors. This is because an abnormal systolic reading is often an indication the patient is at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. If the patient is above the age of 50, this risk increases.

Final Thoughts

Vital signs are a portal into a patient’s health. As a medical assistant, you have the responsibility of taking vital signs at the beginning of every patient visit so the physician can understand the trends and make better diagnoses. Early detection can save lives. This is the awesome responsibility of every medial assistant. Become a medical assistant and join the front lines on patient health.

Did learning about the different vital signs a medical assistant takes interest you? Gwinnett Colleges & Institute offers medical assisting courses to gain essential skills and training. The core curriculum focuses on the medical assisting skills and training you will need to seek entry-level employment in physicians’ offices, clinics, hospitals, and other medical settings needing the services of associates trained in both front and back office medical assisting skills. These medical assisting courses will be the first step in starting a rewarding career.

Contact us to learn more about how you can become a medical assistant today.