Features August 2011 Issue

Take Your Pulse to Save Your Life

Knowing how and when to check your heart rate can alert you to potential problems before they become too serious.

You are used to keeping track of important health numbers such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Now a British non-profit organization argues that it is vital for you to keep track of your pulse as well.

To find your pulse at your wrist, hold out your left arm with your elbow slightly bent and your palm facing the ceiling. Take the index and middle fingers from your right hand and place them on your wrist. To find your pulse at your carotid artery, place your index and middle fingers from your left hand on the left hand side of your neck near the center of your throat. You may need to move your fingers around while pressing lightly to determine the exact location of your pulse.

The Arrhythmia Alliance in England maintains that checking your pulse is as important as checking your weight or blood pressure.

Bruce Wilkoff, MD, agrees. He is the Cleveland Clinicís Director of Cardiac Pacing and Tachyarrhythmia Devices. He is also the president of the Heart Rhythm Society, the largest community of heart rhythm specialists from around the world.

"Addressing the issue of atrial fibrillation and other tachycardias is absolutely needed," says Dr. Wilkoff. "Various arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms are both responsible for the leading causes of death and strokes."

The Campaign

The Arrhythmia Alliance campaign is called "Know Your Pulse." Its premise is that knowing your pulse will detect potential arrhythmias and reduce the number of strokes caused by cardiac arrhythmias.

The group recommends that you take your pulse at various times throughout the day, both before and after activity. To get your baseline pulse, the group recommends taking your resting pulse when you wake in the morning and before you go to bed.

Dr. Wilkoff advises that you take your pulse after five minutes of rest. Arm yourself with a clock that has a second hand.

"It can be measured in the wrist or by checking the carotid artery in the neck or even listening to the chest by another person placing their ear to your chest wall," explains Dr. Wilkoff. "Measuring the number of pulses in a minute or half a minute and multiplying by two is a good way to do it."

What to Look For

As you take your pulse, Dr. Wilkoff advises that you note if the pulse is regular and the number of pulses per minute is consistent. Hopefully you will measure a pulse in the normal range.

"At rest, the heart rate is usually between 45 and 100," says Dr.

Wilkoff. "Often a personís heart rate will be slower while sleeping or faster with exertion and still be normal."

Dr. Wilkoff also advises you to check for an abnormal pulse.

Abnormal Pulse Rates

"If the heart rate is not proportional or directly related to what the body needs for its activities, it represents a very good way of detecting that a more in-depth evaluation is required," explains Dr. Wilkoff. "It could mean that the patient is healthy, is at risk for a fainting spell, at risk for a stroke or at risk for dying suddenly or even that they have some heart damage and heart failure."

Both Dr. Wilkoff and the Arrhythmia Alliance warn you to listen for elevated heart rates as well. If your pulse is consistently over 120 beats per minute you should get it checked with your health care provider.

Once at the doctorís office you may need an electrocardiogram or other testing to determine the cause of an irregular pulse.

If there is a problem such as a potentially dangerous heart rhythm, you will be detecting it before it threatens your life.

Thatís the goal of the Arrhythmia Allianceís campaign.

"Tracking your pulse is more basic than both cholesterol and blood pressure," says Dr. Wilkoff. "All you need is a clock with a second hand and yourself. Many patients do this now, but if we are to reduce the rates of strokes and sudden death it is extremely important that this is done broadly and consistently."