Vital signs (often shortened to just vitals) are used to measure the body’s basic functions. These measurements are taken to help assess the general physical health of a person, give clues to possible diseases, and show progress toward recovery. The normal ranges for a person’s vital signs vary with age, weight, gender, and overall health.
There are four primary vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse (heart rate), and breathing rate (respiratory rate). However, depending on the clinical setting these may include other measurements called the "fifth vital sign" or "sixth vital sign". Vital signs are recorded using the LOINC international standard coding system.
Early warning scores have been proposed that combine the individual values of vital signs into a single score. This was done in recognition that deteriorating vital signs often precede cardiac arrest and/or admission to the intensive care unit. Used appropriately, a rapid response team can assess and treat a deteriorating patient and prevent adverse outcomes.
Primary vital signs
There are four primary vital signs which are standard in most medical settings:
Temperature can be recorded in order to establish a baseline for the individual's normal body temperature for the site and measuring conditions. The main reason for checking body temperature is to solicit any signs of systemic infection or inflammation in the presence of a fever (temp > 38.5 °C/101.3 °F or sustained temp > 38 °C/100.4 °F), or elevated significantly above the individual's normal temperature. Other causes of elevated temperature include hyperthermia.
Temperature depression (hypothermia) also needs to be evaluated. It is also noteworthy to review the trend of the patient's temperature. A patient with a fever of 38 °C does not necessarily indicate an ominous sign if his previous temperature has been higher. Body temperature is maintained through a balance of the heat produced by the body and the heat lost from the body.
Temperature is commonly considered to be a vital sign most notably in a hospital setting. EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians), in particular, are taught to measure the vital signs of: respiration, pulse, skin, pupils, and blood pressure as "the 5 vital signs" in a non-hospital setting.
The pulse is the physical expansion of the artery. Its rate is usually measured either at the wrist or the ankle and is recorded as beats per minute. The pulse commonly taken is from the radial artery at the wrist. Sometimes the pulse cannot be taken at the wrist and is taken at the elbow (brachial artery), at the neck against the carotid artery (carotid pulse), behind the knee (popliteal artery), or in the foot dorsalis pedis or posterior tibial arteries. The pulse rate can also be measured by listening directly to the heartbeat using a stethoscope. The pulse varies with age. A newborn or infant can have a heart rate of about 130–150 beats per minute. A toddler's heart will beat about 100–120 times per minute, an older child's heartbeat is around 60–100 beats per minute, adolescents around 80–100 beats per minute, and adults' pulse rate is anywhere between 50 and 80 beats per minute.
Varies with age, but the normal reference range for an adult is 16–20 breaths/minute (RCP 2012). The value of respiratory rate as an indicator of potential respiratory dysfunction has been investigated but findings suggest it is of limited value. Respiratory rate is clear indicator of acidotic states, as the main function of respiration is removal of CO2 leaving bicarbonate base in circulation.
The blood pressure is recorded as two readings; a high systolic pressure, which occurs during the maximal contraction of the heart, and the lower diastolic or resting pressure. A normal blood pressure would be 120 being the systolic over 80, the diastolic. Usually the blood pressure is read from the left arm unless there is some damage to the arm. The difference between the systolic and diastolic pressure is called the pulse pressure. The measurement of these pressures is now usually done with an aneroid or electronic sphygmomanometer. The classic measurement device is a mercury sphygmomanometer, using a column of mercury measured off in millimeters. In the United States and UK, the common form is millimeters of mercury, whilst elsewhere SI units of pressure are used. There is no natural 'normal' value for blood pressure, but rather a range of values that on increasing are associated with increased risks. The guideline acceptable reading also takes into account other co-factors for disease. Therefore, elevated blood pressure (hypertension) is variously defined when the systolic number is persistently over 140–160 mmHg. Low blood pressure is hypotension. Blood pressures are also taken at other portions of the extremities. These pressures are called segmental blood pressures and are used to evaluate blockage or arterial occlusion in a limb (see Ankle brachial pressure index).
Fifth vital signs
The "fifth vital sign" may refer to a few different parameters.
- Pain is considered a standard fifth vital sign in some organizations such as the U.S. Veterans Affairs. Pain is measured on a pain scale based on subjective patient reporting and may be unreliable. Some studies show that recording pain routinely may not change management. Other "fifth vital signs" include:
Sixth vital signs
There is no standard "sixth vital sign"; its use is more informal and discipline-dependent than the above.
- Gait speed
Variations by age
|Range||Typical example||Range||Typical example|
|Infants||1 to 12 months||75-100||85||50–70||60|
|Toddlers||1 to 4 years||80-110||95||50–80||65|
|Preschoolers||3 to 5 years||80-110||95||50–80||65|
|School age||6 to 13 years||85-120||100||55–80||65|
|Adolescents||13 to 18 years||95-140||115||60–90||75|
Children and infants have respiratory and heart rates that are faster than those of adults as shown in the following table:
|Age||Normal heart rate
(beats per minute)
|Normal respiratory rate|
(breaths per minute)
|Range||Typical example||Range||Typical example|
Monitoring of vital parameters most commonly include at least blood pressure and heart rate, and preferably also pulse oximetry and respiratory rate. Multimodal monitors that simultaneously measure and display the relevant vital parameters are commonly integrated into the bedside monitors in critical care units, and the anesthetic machines in operating rooms. These allow for continuous monitoring of a patient, with medical staff being continuously informed of the changes in general condition of a patient.
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