"Pulse" is one of the most iconic medical terms. It is symbolic of medicine and widely familiar as a measure of our heartbeat.
The term is as well known as the shape of a normal EKG or ECG reading, which is often dramatically illustrated in TV dramas to the soundtrack of the heartbeat's classic sound.
But what is the best way to find and measure the pulse? This article gives straightforward guidance.
Contents of this article:
There are also introductions to recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories, and look out for links to information about related topics, such as one to explain what a normal heart rate is.
What is the pulse?
The pulse is simply the expansion of the arteries caused by the increases in blood pressure pushing against the elastic walls of the arteries each time our heart beats.1
These arterial expansions come and go with the same regularity against which the heart pumps our blood and then refills. The pulsations are felt at certain points on the body where larger arteries run closer to the skin.
Find out more from MNT about what the heart rate is exactly, with an article that also explains normal heart rate readings.
We also have an article that answers the question, what exactly is blood pressure? That page introduces information about abnormal blood pressures - the conditions known as hypotension and hypertension.
How to find a pulse
Take the wrist pulse for an easy way to monitor heart rate.
Arteries run closely under the skin at the wrist and neck, making the pulse particularly easy to find at these points.
Here are the simple steps needed to take a pulse at the wrist (radial pulse):2,3
- Turn one of your hands over so it is palm-side up
- Use your other hand to place two fingertips gently in the groove on the forearm, down from the fold of the wrist and about an inch along from the base of your thumb
- When you have the position right, you should feel the pulsation of your heart beat.
Use whichever arm is easiest - a right arm pulse is being felt in the picture here; left arm in the first picture.
You can also find the pulse on the neck, by placing two fingers in the same way, gently pressing into the soft groove on either side of the windpipe (trachea).
This is the pulse running through one of the carotid arteries - the main arteries that run up the neck to the head from the heart.
Less easy places to find a pulse are:
- Behind the knees
- On the inside of an elbow when the arm is outstretched
- In the groin
- At the temple on the side of the head
- On the top or the inner side of the foot.
The video below is presented by a nurse explaining how to take a pulse - this can be followed for your own pulse or for taking someone else's in the same way.
How to record a pulse reading
Once you have found a pulse by following the steps above, hold still and:2,3
- Use a timepiece or watch with a second hand, or look at a clock with a second hand
- Over the course of a minute or 30 seconds, count the number of beats felt
- The number of pulses over a minute is the standard heart rate measurement, which can also be reached by doubling the number of pulses felt over a half minute.
Recent developments concerning the pulse from MNT news
Researchers found that an instrument to measure the speed the pulse moves between two points was better used on the arm. The study, published in September 2013, related to the way the aortic pulse wave velocity is taken as a test of aortic hardening.
University of Florida scientists said in August of 2013 they had found a brain-based explanation for why pain did not throb in time with the pulse.
Heart rate monitors
Cardiac monitors are used in hospital settings to track the vital signs of patients.
Hospitals have long used monitors such as the one seen in the picture to read numerous vital signs including the heart rate. Many electronic blood pressure monitors used in the doctor's office also take a pulse reading, as do the clinically validated machines that patients can use for home monitoring.4
Of course, one of the big developments of recent years is the wide range of products available on the consumer market for personal health monitoring.
Numerous devices can be connected to software apps for mobile phones, and there is a number of health monitoring wearables available that combine the hardware and software in one device.
It is an ever-developing area of technology with a bewildering array of options, but one place we can go to for a list of selected "mobile medical applications" is the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) page of example apps cleared by the health product regulator. One of the examples listed is a piece of kit that works with a mobile phone not only to monitor pulse but also to give a consumer readings that are equivalent to those of a medical ECG machine, claims the manufacturer.
Finger on the pulse of apps and gadgets for personal health monitoring
Machines that also measure pulse rate, including gadgets for the iPhone age of self-monitoring.
The American Heart Association calls for more scientific research on the effects against cardiovascular risk factors of mobile health technologies, and confirms that these may encourage healthier lifestyles.
First published in 2013, including information on how to make self-tracking work for you as an individual, this article holds true today about the way that developments are influencing our relationships with health.
Normal and abnormal pulse
The heart should beat steadily, with a regular gap between each contraction, so the pulse should also be steady. However, it is normal for the heart rate to vary in response to movement and activity, exercise, anxiety, excitement and fear.5
If you feel that your heart is beating out of rhythm - or too fast or too slow - and this can be felt when taking a pulse, you should discuss this with a doctor.
You might also feel that your heart has missed or "skipped" a beat, or there has been an extra beat. An extra beat is called an ectopic beat. Ectopic beats are very common, are usually harmless and do not need any treatment.6,7
If you are concerned about palpitations or ectopic beats, however, you should speak to your doctor.
Abnormal heart rhythms come in a number of different types - use our information about heart rates to find out more - the page also lists the normal pulse rates for different age groups and target heart rates for fitness.