"Pulse" is one of the most well-known medical terms. It is symbolic of medicine and widely familiar as a measure of our heartbeat.
But what is the pulse, why is it important, and what is the best way to find and measure the pulse? This article gives straightforward guidance.
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on checking your pulse
Here are some key points about checking your pulse. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- As the heart pumps, the arteries expand and contract, this is the pulse
- The pulse is easiest to find on the wrist or neck
- It is normal for heart rate to fluctuate in response to physical and psychological changes
What is the pulse?
The pulse is simply the expansion of the arteries. This expansion is caused by an increase in blood pressure pushing against the elastic walls of the arteries each time our heart beats.
These arterial expansions rise and fall in time with the heart as it pumps our blood and then rests as it refills. The pulsations are felt at certain points on the body where larger arteries run closer to the skin.
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):
- Turn one hand over, so it is palm-side up
- Use the 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 the thumb
- When the position is 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.
The pulse can also be found on the neck using two fingers in a similar way; gently press 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 from the heart to the head.
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, presented by a nurse, explains how to take a pulse:
How to record a pulse reading
Once the pulse has been found by following the steps above, hold still and:
- 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 calculated by doubling the number of pulses felt over 30 seconds
Normal and abnormal pulse readings
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.
As a general rule, adults will have a resting heart rate of 60-100 beats per minute (bpm). In general, fitter people will have slower heart rates than less fit individuals. Athletes, for instance, may have a resting heart rate of just 40-60 bpm.
If you feel that your heart is beating out of rhythm - or too fast or too slow (under 40 or over 120) - 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.
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.
Heart rate monitors
Hospitals have long used monitors, like the one seen in the picture below, to read numerous vital signs including 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.
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.
Cardiac monitors are used in hospital settings to track the vital signs of patients.
Numerous devices can be connected to software apps for mobile phones, and there are 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 huge number of options; the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a page listing a number of apps cleared by the health product regulator; this might be a good place to start.
Some of the available technology works with a mobile phone to monitor the pulse and can provide readings that are equivalent to those of a medical ECG machine.
To summarize, measuring the pulse is simple to do and can be a useful sign for medical professionals. If you have any concerns regarding your heart rate, speak to a doctor.