Here’s Exactly How To Take Your Pulse, According to an MD

Whenever I feel my heart race or face flush, I touch my forehead like I'm the star of Grey's Anatomy. Or I press my fingers to my neck and look at my watch dramatically, only to remember that I have no idea how to take a pulse. It's usually at this point that I wait for my heartbeat, and I feel nothing. Am I a vampire? No, I just placed my fingers on the wrong area of my very human body. So, if you're dealing with a similar issue, here's how to take your pulse, according to experts.

Your pulse is how many times your heart beats per minute, according to the Cleveland Clinic, it is lower when you are resting and higher when you are more active. Your heart rate increases when you require more oxygen-rich blood to carry nutrients and energy to your muscles and cells so that you can do the thing you're doing, whether that's typing, walking, or running. The more intense the activity— the faster your pulse will be. Doctors typically use devices like a pulse oximeter (that LED screened device that clips to your finger), a blood pressure machine, or a stethoscope and the clock on the wall, the Cleveland Clinic says.

Experts In This Article

Here's how to check your pulse with your fingers

Your pointer finger and middle finger are among the most sensitive parts of your body, which is why you use them to take your pulse, says Sean Ormond, MD, a pain management specialist and an anesthesiologist at Case Western University. Only use these two fingers, though, or else you risk getting an incorrect reading of your pulse, he says. For example, using your thumb to take your pulse will not be accurate because your thumb has an artery. This could cloud your ability to feel the beating in your wrist and neck.

Places like your bum or thigh will not offer a reliable pulse because there's a lot more padding between you and your major arteries. The following areas provide a great avenue for measuring your pulse because large arteries lie beneath relatively thinner skin. To take your pulse, place your two forefingers on the following spots:

  • Radial pulse: On on your wrist, just below the thumb (of your opposite hand)
  • Brachial pulse: The underside of your arm before the elbow
  • Pedal pulse: The top of your foot close to the leg
  • Carotid pulse: The side of your neck just below the jaw

Typically, you want to try your neck and wrist first, says Dr. Ormond, but if those are injured or inaccessible, the top of the foot or inner elbow can also work. Dr. Ormond also explains that if you don't feel your pulse immediately, it might be because of adrenaline or anxiety that spurred your desire to take your pulse in the first place. Dry off your hands if they're sweaty, take deep breaths, and wait until you feel your pulse.

Once you feel that thud beneath your fingertips, Dr. Ormond says you should use your watch or set a timer for one minute and count every beat for sixty seconds. You can also count the beats that happen in 15 seconds and multiply that by four, according to Le Dam, MD, Staff Physician of Eko, the company that created the first AI stethoscope.

If you're laying down, sitting still, and have a heart resting heart rate above 100 beats per minute, you should contact a provider, according to the Mayo Clinic. Alternatively, if you're not a trained athlete and your heart rate is consistently below 60 beats per minute, it is also a cause for concern. If you deal with either of these along with faintness, shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness, find a place to sit down and urgently seek treatment, the Mayo Clinic says. Your pulse can tell you a lot, but it's also important to seek other forms of care if you're concerned for your health or safety.

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