The days of having your blood pressure taken with an uncomfortable arm-squeezing cuff may be numbered, after scientists developed a far more pleasant technique.
Researchers used an ultrasound scanner, more commonly used on pregnant women, to measure a person’s blood pressure pulse at various points around the body.
The team, from the Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands, said the procedure would help prevent heart attacks and strokes by giving a far clearer picture of the condition of the heart and blood vessels.
Dr Nathalie Binjnens, said scientists had been searching for such a non-invasive method for years.
She said: ‘The usual method is to insert a catheter with a pressure sensor. But that’s an invasive procedure, and not suitable for preventive diagnostics.
‘There’s also the traditional method using an inflatable arm cuff. But that doesn’t allow any conclusions to be drawn about – for example – the blood pressure in the carotid artery.’
The cartoid arteries are found on each side of the neck and provide the main blood supply to the brain.
‘You won’t find anyone willing to have the blood pressure in their neck measured using an inflatable cuff,’ Dr Binjnens said.
In the new technique doctors apply a small amount of gel to various points around the body so that the scanner makes good contact with the skin.
The researchers then use a mathematical model to achieve a good visualisation of the blood flow and the blood vessel wall motion, from which the blood pressure can be derived.
They can also see the variations in blood pressure and flow in time as a result of the beating of the heart.
The simultaneous knowledge of pressure and flow also provides information about ‘downstream’ parts of the vascular system.
Doctors will be able to use the technique to give an early warning to patients in danger of developing cardiovascular problems.
Dr Binjens said: ‘By performing a simple scan, the physician can detect vascular disease in an early stage and decide for a preventive treatment.’
She said it could be used to monitor diseases such as thrombosos or aneurysms (dangerous dilations of a blood vessel that can lead to strokes).
The researchers published their results last month in the scientific journal Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology.
The method was first tested on elastic plastic tubes, and after that on pigs’ carotid arteries from an abattoir, with good results.
It is currently being tested on volunteers in advance of clinical tests with patients. The results have been promising but researchers say it will take a few years to develop before it is ready for GP practices.