4 steps for checking your own pulse and what it means

Learn to take your pulse and know what’s normal and what isn’t.

Our hearts beat around 100,000 times a day, but most of us don’t give them a second thought.

For more than 2 million people in the UK with arrhythmia, however, they’re only too aware of their heart’s irregular, slow or fast rhythm.

Common types of arrhythmia include atrial fibrillation (AF), where the heart beats faster and irregularly, which increases risk of stroke, while some arrhythmias in people with severe heart conditions can cause sudden cardiac death.

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So it’s extremely important to be aware of what’s normal and what’s not by checking your pulse, says the charity Arrhythmia Alliance, this Heart Rhythm Week. 

Your heart rate or pulse is the number of times your heart beats within a minute – and the easiest place to feel your pulse is on your wrist, below your thumb – but you also have pulses in your groin, behind your knee and in your elbow.

What is a ‘normal’ pulse?

Anything between 60 to 100 beats a minute is considered normal, but various factors will make your heart rate faster or slower, including caffeine, stress, age, your level of fitness and any medications you’re taking.

How to take your own pulse

Arrhythmia Alliance gives the following 4 steps to taking your pulse…

1. To assess your resting pulse rate in your wrist, sit down for five minutes beforehand. Remember that any stimulants taken before the reading will affect the rate (such as caffeine or nicotine). You will need a watch or clock with a second hand.

2. Take off your watch and hold your left or right hand out with your palm facing up and your elbow slightly bent.

3. 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 stringy tendon attached to your thumb. You may need to move your fingers around a little to find the pulse. Keep firm pressure on your wrist with your fingers in order to feel your pulse.

4. Count for 30 seconds, and multiply by two to get your heart rate in beats per minute. If your heart rhythm is irregular, you should count for one minute and do not multiply.

When should you check your pulse?

Arrhythmia Alliance advises: “It is a good idea to try taking your pulse at various points throughout the day (before and after various activities). Your pulse rate will change during the day depending on what activity you are doing. This is normal. To get your baseline pulse and normal rhythm, try taking your resting pulse when you wake in the morning and before going to bed.”

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When should you go to the doctor?

Arrhythmia Alliance says: “Everyone is different and it is difficult to give precise guidelines. Certainly many people may have pulse rates over 100 beats/min (bpm) and less than 60 bpm. Irregularity is quite difficult to assess since the normal pulse is a bit irregular, varying with the phase of respiration. You should see your doctor if you have a persistent heart rate above 120 bpm or below 40 bpm.”

- If your pulse seems to be racing some or most of the time and you are feeling unwell.
- If your pulse seems to be slow some or most of the time and you are feeling unwell.
- If your pulse feels irregular (“jumping around”), even if you do not feel unwell.

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