Test Overview

Your pulse is the rate at which your heart
beats. Your pulse is usually called your heart rate, which is the number of
times your heart beats each minute (bpm). But the rhythm and strength of
the heartbeat can also be noted, as well as whether the blood vessel feels hard
or soft. Changes in your heart rate or rhythm, a weak pulse, or a hard blood
vessel may be caused by heart disease or another problem.

As your
heart pumps blood through your body, you can feel a pulsing in some of the
blood vessels close to the skin’s surface, such as in your wrist, neck, or upper
arm. Counting your pulse rate is a simple way to find out how fast your heart
is beating.

Your doctor will usually check your pulse during a
physical examination or in an emergency, but you can easily
learn to check your own pulse. You can check your pulse the first thing in the
morning, just after you wake up but before you get out of bed. This is called a
resting pulse. Some people like to check their pulse before and after they
exercise.

You check your pulse rate by counting the beats in a set
period of time (at least 15 to 20 seconds) and multiplying that number to get
the number of beats per minute. Your pulse changes from minute to minute. It
will be faster when you exercise, have a fever, or are under stress. It will be
slower when you are resting.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.

Why It Is Done

Your pulse is checked to:

  • See how well the heart is working. In an
    emergency situation, your pulse rate can help find out if the heart is pumping
    enough blood.
  • Help find the cause of symptoms, such as an irregular
    or rapid heartbeat (palpitations), dizziness, fainting, chest pain, or
    shortness of breath.
  • Check for blood flow after an injury or when a
    blood vessel may be blocked.
  • Check on medicines or diseases that
    cause a slow heart rate. Your doctor may ask you to check your pulse every day
    if you have heart disease or if you are taking certain medicines that can slow
    your heart rate, such as digoxin or beta-blockers (such as atenolol or propranolol).
  • Check your general health and fitness level. Checking
    your pulse rate at rest, during exercise, or immediately after vigorous
    exercise can give you important information about your overall fitness
    level.

How To Prepare

All you need to check your pulse is a
watch with a second hand or a digital stop watch. Find a quiet place, where you
can sit down and are not distracted when you are learning to check your
pulse.

How It Is Done

You can measure your pulse rate
anywhere an artery comes close to the skin, such as in your wrist or neck, temple
area, groin, behind the knee, or top of your foot.

You can easily
check your pulse on the inside of your wrist, below your thumb.

  • Gently place 2 fingers of your other hand on
    this artery.
  • Do not use your thumb because it has its own pulse
    that you may feel.
  • Count the beats for 30 seconds; then double the
    result to get the number of beats per minute.

You can also check your pulse in the carotid artery. This
is located in your neck, on either side of your windpipe. Be careful when
checking your pulse in this location, especially if you are older than 65. If
you press too hard, you may become lightheaded and fall.

You can
buy an electronic pulse meter to automatically check your pulse in your finger,
wrist, or chest. These devices are helpful if you have trouble measuring your
pulse or if you wish to check your pulse while you exercise.

How It Feels

Checking your pulse should not cause
pain.

Risks

Checking your pulse should not cause problems.
Be careful when checking your pulse in your neck, especially if you are older
than 65. If you press too hard, you may become lightheaded and fall.

Call your doctor if you have any
of the following symptoms:

  • An irregular or rapid heartbeat (palpitations). Palpitations can be persistent or may
    come and go (episodic).
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness
    of breath

Talk to your doctor if you have a fast heart rate, many
skipped or extra beats, or if the blood vessel where you check your pulse feels
hard.

Results

Your pulse is the rate at which your
heart beats. Your pulse is usually called your heart rate, which is the number
of times your heart beats each minute (bpm).

Normal resting heart rate

The chart below shows
the normal range of a resting heart rate (pulse rate after resting 10 minutes)
in beats per minute, according to age. Many things can cause changes in your
normal heart rate, including your age, activity level, and the time of
day.

Resting heart rate
Age or fitness level Beats per minute (bpm)

Babies to age 1:

100-160

Children ages 1 to
10:

70-120

Children ages 11 to
17:

60-100

Adults:

60-100

Well-conditioned
athletes:

40-60

Your pulse usually has a strong steady or regular
rhythm. Your blood vessel should feel soft. An occasional pause or extra beat
is normal. Normally, your heart rate will speed up a little when you breathe
deeply. You can check this normal change in your pulse rate by changing your
breathing pattern while taking your pulse.

Many conditions can
change your pulse rate. Your doctor will talk with you about any abnormal
results that may be related to your symptoms and past health.

Fast pulse

A fast heart rate may be caused
by:

  • Activity or exercise.
  • Anemia.
  • Some medicines, such as decongestants and those used to treat
    asthma.
  • Fever.
  • Some types of heart
    disease.
  • An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
  • Stimulants such as caffeine,
    amphetamines, diet pills, and
    cigarettes.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Stress.

Slow pulse

A slow resting heart rate may be caused
by:

  • Some types of heart disease and medicine to treat heart disease.
  • High levels of fitness.
  • An underactive
    thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).

Weak pulse

A weak pulse may be caused by:

Heart rate during exercise

Many people use a
target heart rate to guide how hard they exercise. Use this
Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate? This
tool calculates your target heart rate using your maximum heart rate (based on
your age), your resting heart rate, and how active you are.

During
exercise, your heart should be working hard enough for a healthy effect but not
so hard that your heart is overworked. You benefit the most when your exercise
heart rate is within the range of your target heart rate. You can take your
pulse rate during or after exercise to see if you are exercising at your target
heart rate.

Or you can wear a heart rate monitor during exercise
so you do not have to take your pulse. A heart rate monitor shows your pulse
rate continuously, so you see how exercise changes your heart rate.

To check your heart rate while exercising:

  1. After exercising for about 10 minutes, stop
    and take your pulse.

    • Measure your heart rate by placing two
      fingers gently against your wrist (don’t use your thumb). If it is hard to feel
      the pulse in your wrist, find the artery in your neck that is just to either
      side of the windpipe. Press gently.
    • Count the beats for 15 seconds.
      Multiply the number of beats by 4. This is your beats per minute.
  2. Make changes in how hard you exercise so that
    your heart rate stays within the range of your target heart rate.

Target heart rate is only a guide. Everyone is different,
so pay attention to how you feel, how hard you are breathing, how fast your
heart is beating, and how much you feel the exertion in your muscles.

What Affects the Test

You may not be able to feel your
pulse or count your pulse correctly if you:

  • Have decreased sensation in your
    fingers.
  • Are not using the right amount of pressure. Too much
    pressure can slow the heart rate, and too little pressure can cause you to miss
    some beats.
  • Are trying to take your pulse in an area that is
    covered by too much muscle or fat.
  • Are using your thumb to take
    your pulse. Your thumb has its own pulse, which will interfere with your
    counting.
  • Are moving too much while trying to take your
    pulse.

What To Think About

Many people take their pulse during or right after exercise,
to check their heart rate and to find out if they are exercising at a healthy
pace. Your heart rate (pulse) during and after exercise will be higher than
your resting heart rate.

Call your doctor if your heart rate does
not come down within a few minutes after you have stopped exercising.

As you continue to exercise regularly, your heart rate will not rise as
high as it once did with the same amount of effort. This is a sign that you are
becoming more fit. To learn more, see the topic
Fitness.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia (2011). Pulse. Available online: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003399.htm.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Martin J. Gabica, MD – Family Medicine

Current as ofOctober 9, 2017