About five years ago, the Arrhythmia Alliance carried out an interesting campaign in South Carolina, USA.

They set up some pop-up stalls in public spaces. Then they offered to check the pulses of passersby. The results were revealing. Of the 500+ people who stopped by, 65 were found to have “unreadable or unclassified heart rhythms”. More than 30 (6%) were found to have possible atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that can raise the risk of stroke.

The event raised some key points. Firstly, that many people don’t realise they have an issue with their heart rhythm. And secondly, that checking your own pulse is sometimes all it takes to reveal the problem. As the AA put it in their recent Know Your Pulse campaign: “it could save your life.”

What should you look for when checking your pulse?

The obvious thing you can get from checking your pulse is your heart rate. That is, the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm). Most adults have a resting heart rate of between 60 and 100 bpm. So a quick test can tell you whether your heart is significantly outside that range: either unusually fast, or unusually slow. The other thing a pulse check can look for is an abnormal rhythm. Is the beat ordered and regular, like the tick of a clock? Or does the pattern feel unusual or random?

What might be causing an irregular pulse?

Irregular pulses can happen for many reasons. Some are temporary and benign: for instance, an intensive training session, or a highly pressurised situation at work. But irregular heart rhythms can be potentially dangerous too. If the heart is beating too quickly, too slowly, or in an abnormal way, it may not be pumping blood properly around the body. This can lead to uncomfortable symptoms like dizziness and shortness of breath. It also increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke. The AA estimates that one in five strokes are due to an irregular pulse.

What’s the best way to take your own pulse?

It only takes 30 seconds to check if you have a healthy pulse. Here’s a recommended way to do it:

  1. Find a watch with a second hand. If you’re already wearing one, you’ll need to remove it for the test. You could also use the timer on your phone
  2. Sit down and rest for five minutes before you start the test. Avoid taking any stimulants, such as tea, coffee or nicotine
  3. Hold out your hand, palm up, with your elbow slightly bent
  4. Place the index and middle fingers of your free hand on the inside of your wrist, at the base of your thumb (see image). You may need to move your fingers around a little to locate the pulse
  5. Start the timer and count out the beats. After 30 seconds, stop and multiply the total by two; this gives you your pulse in beats per minute

What if my pulse is irregular?

If your pulse feels irregular, repeat the test. But this time do it for 60 seconds, and don’t multiply the number at the end. Does it still feel irregular? Or did you register 120bpm or higher during the check? If so, we recommend booking in with your GP or a practice nurse and asking them to check it for you. It may be nothing to worry about. But if there’s reason to investigate further, they’ll be able to help you take the necessary next steps. As the Arrhythmia Alliance explains, it pays to be prudent: “If pulse checks were routine, thousands of lives could be saved and thousands of debilitating strokes could be prevented every year. Knowing your pulse can save your life.”

Finger on the pulse: some helpful resources

[VIDEO] Know Your Pulse – a pulse-checking guide from the AA’s campaign
[VIDEO] How to Check Your Pulse – an instructional video from the Irish Heart Foundation
How do you test for a heart rhythm problem? – an article from our News section
What are the classic signs of atrial fibrillation? – an article from our News section