Date: October 1st, 2012
Think back and try to remember if your doctor or another health care professional checked your pulse during your last visit? Not with a stethoscope but with their fingers on your wrist? If you’re like many people you’re sure that they listened to your heart and checked your blood pressure, but you’re also pretty sure no one has taken your pulse in a while.
While listening to your heart with a stethoscope helps your doctor evaluate the functioning of your heart and its valves, a simple pulse check can better evaluate your heart’s rate and rhythm.
Detecting Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of heart arrhythmia--or abnormal heart rate--which impacts around 2.6 million Americans. During AFib episodes the heart’s upper chambers beat irregularly and out of sync with its lower chambers. The arrhythmia itself isn’t generally serious but the abnormal blood flow and strain to the heart can lead to serious medical conditions.
One of the most serious consequences of AFib is stroke--around 15% of all strokes occur in people with AFib. The irregular rhythm doesn’t allow the heart to pump out all of the blood between beats so some of it can be left behind to pool and clot. A clot that forms in the heart can be pumped out and lodge somewhere else in the body. If it makes its way to the brain it can cause a stroke; which is often disabling and even deadly.
Many people with AFib can take anticoagulants to help prevent strokes--but only if they know they have the disease. Unfortunately, many Americans have the disease but have never been diagnosed. They may find out at a regular visit to their health care professional, or when they start to develop symptoms and report them. Or they may not find out until they have a serious episode and end up in the emergency room.
Regular screening with a simple pulse check can change this.
Simple Steps to Save Lives
A study of 15,000 patients in the United Kingdom found that general practitioners identified 50% more AFib cases when they conducted random pulse checks. Leaders in heart health are recognizing the value of the widespread use of pulse checks and non-profits like the Atrial Fibrillation Association (AFA) and the Arrhythmia Alliance (AA) are launching campaigns to help spread the word. They believe that checking the pulse of every patient could prevent thousands of strokes every year. This impact will only grow if people start checking their pulses on their own.
As part of their Know Your Pulse Campaign, these groups have conducted pulse checks at hospitals, with legislators, at community centers, linked with flu or other routine prevention screenings, and more. At all of the events, AFib was detected in a number of individuals who were previously undiagnosed.
Checking Your Own Pulse
You don't need to wait until your next visit to the doctor to get your pulse checked. You can check it yourself in four easy steps:
- Sit down for 5 minutes beforehand so that you can assess your resting pulse. Keep in mind that if you just had any caffeine or nicotine, that will affect your rate.
- Remove your watch or jewelry and hold one hand out with your palm facing up and your elbow slightly bent.
- With your other hand, place your index and middle fingers on your wrist at the base of your thumb. Your fingers should sit between the bone on the edge of your wrist and the tendon attached to your thumb. You may need to move your fingers around a little to find your pulse. Be sure to keep firm pressure on your fingers.
- Count your heartbeat for 30 seconds (you will need a clock or watch with a second hand) and multiply by 2 to get your heart rate in beats per minute. If you notice that your heart rhythm is irregular, you should count for the full minute and do not multiply.
It's helpful to record your pulse at different times of day during both rest and activity to find out if it varies and how. Keep in mind that it is normal for your rate to change during the day and according to what activities you are doing.
A normal pulse is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Things like your age, medications, caffeine consumption, level of fitness, heart conditions, stress, and anxiety can all impact your heart rate. But it's not just about how fast but how steadily your heart beats. Be sure to discuss any abnormalities with your doctor at your next visit to find out what may be causing them and to be sure it's not something serious like AFib.
Talk to your doctor right away if:
- Your pulse seems to be racing some or most of the time and you are feeling unwell.
- Your pulse seems to be slow some or most of the time and you are feeling unwell.
- Your pulse is irregular--jumping around--even if you feel fine.
The Know Your Pulse Campaign has a great video on-line that shows you the basics on taking your pulse. They also have a Smartphone App that helps you keep track of your pulse. Be sure to take your pulse regularly. It could save your life.