How to take your pulse

A pulse is a beat you feel through an artery that “describes” how well your heart is pumping. Pulses can tell us many things: how fast or slow the heart is beating, whether it is beating regular or irregular, and what the quality of the beat is, which describes the condition of the heart. A normal pulse is 60 – 100 beats per minute and is felt as “a beat you can march to,” meaning it is constantly regular.

The pulse should be strong, but not too strong or the heart is working too hard. Pulses less than 60 beats per minute indicate the heart is “bradycardic” or beating too slow. At rest, this is normal, but if the pulse doesn’t pick up with activity, the heart is not pumping correctly. Contrarily, a “tachycardic” heart is one that beats more than 100 beats per minute, indicated that the heart is pumping too fast.

With exercise this is normal, but it is abnormal at rest. If the pulse felt is not a regular beat, it means one of two things: if it feels “regularly irregular” it means the heart is pumping at an irregular pace, but the irregular beats are repeated, and one can foresee when the irregular beats will take place.

This may be normal in some hearts, to have an irregular rhythm that always repeats. In contrast, an “irregularly irregular” beat means the pulse is haphazard and unidentifiable, and this is a serious problem. In addition, the pulse can tell us how strong the heart is beating. A weak or “thready” pulse indicates that the heart is not pumping hard enough,

whereas an extra-strong, “bounding” pulse means the heart is pumping too hard. Rate, rhythm, and depth of the beats should always be considered when analyzing one’s pulse.

Taking a pulse is important for many reasons. First, it is one of the primary responses when evaluating someone for CPR. Whether or not they have a pulse determines whether or not you should give chest compressions.

Giving compressions if someone has a pulse can be very detrimental to the heart! Second, it is important to know how to take your pulse when you are exercising, so you know that you have done a proper warm-up and cool-down, and your heart isn’t working too hard with activity. Finally, you should become familiar with taking your own pulse at least once a month at rest, so that if you notice any changes, you can seek your physician’s help before any danger occurs.

A pulse can be taken over any artery, but it is best taken over ones that are superficial to the skin. The three main arteries are the Carotid (in your neck), the Radial (in your wrist), and the Femoral (in your leg near the groin). Your pulse should always be taken with the index and middle fingers of your hand, never your thumb because it has its own pulse.

To take the Carotid pulse, place your two fingers right behind your earlobe. Then, slide diagonally downwards approximately one to two inches and you should be right over top! Also, you can start at the Adam’s Apple and slide diagonally upward and you should be in the same spot.

Remember to press gently, and not too firmly as you will occlude the artery and blood supply which can cause you to pass out! To take the Radial pulse, trace your index finger straight down until you pass the beginning of your wrist bones, and the pulse will be under you. Or, you can make a fist, and you will see some tendons “pop-out” in your forearm. To the right of those tendons lays the Radial artery. Relax your wrist to take the pulse.

The Femoral pulse is harder to find, and should only be taken on someone else if the other two pulses cannot be accessed because it is in a personal area. The Femoral pulse is in the groin area, halfway between the side of the hips and the pubic area. You must press firmly because this pulse is deeper than the previous two.

Of course, the best way to get a pulse is over the heart through a stethoscope. You can place the stethoscope directly over or under the nipple to get an accurate pulse. If you notice any irregularities in the pulses you are taking, please contact a medical professional immediately, as pulse changes are often indicators of serious heart problems.

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