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Medical Tools - Pulse Information and Measurement

By Zaf Udin 04/05/2012 Google+

Taking care of one's heart is an important part of maintaining good health. One of the ways that a person can do that is to monitor his or her heart rate. A heart rate is the number of beats that the heart makes during any given time. Typically this is the number of heartbeats within a one-minute time span. Throughout the course of a day, a person's heart rate does not remain consistent and will frequently change according to stress, activity levels or injury. Checking a person's pulse is a way to quickly and accurately determine the number of heartbeats during any situation, at any time.

Why Check Your Pulse?

Checking a person's pulse is a crucial part of any examination, whether it is in office or during an emergency situation. This is because it provides the doctor with important information regarding certain aspects of the individual's health. When checked during an examination, a person's pulse can give the doctor an idea of the patient's general health. It may also be checked when the patient is on certain medications that can slow down a normal heart rate. At times, the doctor may require patients to check and chart their own pulse at various intervals during a routine day. When it comes to fitness, monitoring one's heart rate can provide the doctor with information regarding the patient's overall fitness level. For the purpose of evaluating heart rate for fitness, the patient will likely need to check his or her pulse rate while at rest and while participating in sports or exercise.

In emergency situations, measuring a person's pulse is critical. If the person has experienced an injury, the pulse rate can indicate whether or not there is a damaged or blocked blood vessel. In addition, it can also help confirm that the heart is pumping adequate amounts of blood. If a person is feeling faint, dizzy or has difficulty breathing, checking the pulse may also help to narrow down the cause of these symptoms.

Testing Your Pulse

Before a person can check his or her heart rate, they must first be aware of where the pulse is measured. Generally the best areas to do this is in locations where an artery passes close to the skin, such as the groin, neck, wrists, temple, or the top or inner side of the foot. When a person is determining their heart rate, they may take a resting heart rate or an exercise heart rate. As the name suggests, the exercise heart rate is taken when exercising. When determining a resting heart rate, it is important to ensure that the body is at rest. This can be done by resting for ten minutes before the pulse is checked.

Two of the more common locations to measure for a pulse are the wrist and the neck, using the index and middle finger. When measuring at the wrist, place two fingers over the underside of the opposite hand's wrist, just below the base of the thumb. When measuring the pulse at the neck, place the index and middle finger in the soft hollow area of the neck, alongside the Adam's apple. Regardless of the location, press the two fingers firmly just until a pulse is felt. There should be only a slight sense of pressure on the location where the fingers are pressing, but no pain. Continue pressing and count the number of beats that occur for one minute.

After the minute has passed, write down the number of heart beats that were felt within that minute. The normal range for a resting heart rate will vary depending on the age of the person. For example, an infant that is between the ages of three and six months, should have a resting heart rate that is between 80 to 120 beats per minute (BPM). Children that are between the ages of one and ten, should have 70 to 130 BPM. Adults and children over the age of ten should have 60 to 100 BPM. People who are at peak physical fitness, such as well-trained athletes, will notice that their BPM are slower than adults who are not as physically fit. Athletes should expect to find that their resting heart rate is between 40 to 60 BPM.

When checking a pulse, there are several abnormal results that they may experience. One of these abnormalities is a consistently high heart rate known as tachycardia. Under normal circumstances, the heart is controlled by electrical signals that help to maintain a regular heart beat. With tachycardia, the signals are abnormal and the heart beats irregularly fast. This condition could put an undue amount of stress on the heart and increase the risk of conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease. Abnormal result may also mean that there are closed arteries close to the skin, excessive fluid buildup, or arrhythmia. These conditions are often associated with what is called a bounding pulse, which is a very strong and forceful pulse. A difficult to detect pulse is another abnormal result that may be noted. This type of result may indicate that there is a health problem, such as a blocked artery from high cholesterol, or it may be indicative of cardiac arrest. However, for some, a weak pulse may not be an actual health problem, but rather a result of poor technique when reading the pulse.

Calculating Target Heart Rate

During physical activity, determining a person's heart rate can help to track the intensity of the physical activity. To do this it must be determined what that person's target heart rate zone is during physical activity. There are two target heart rates that should be determined, one for moderate physical activity and one for vigorous physical activity. In order to determine the target heart rate, a person's maximum heart rate must be determined based off of the individual's age. To calculate an estimate of the maximum heart rate, or maximum heart BPM, the person should subtract their age from 220. Therefore, if a person is 33 years old, then 220 - 33 years = 187 BPM.

For moderate intensity activities your heart rate goal is between 50% to 70% of the maximum heart rate. For vigorous intensity activities or workouts, the goal heart rate should be between 70% to 85% of the maximum heart rate. For the same 33-year-old, his or her target heart rate for moderate activity would be calculated as 187 x 0.50 = 93 BPM for 50% of the maximum heart rate or for 70% of the maximum heart rate the formula reads 187 x 0.70 = 130.9 or 131 BPM. To determine what the maximum heart rate is for vigorous workouts for the same 33-year-old person multiply 187 by 0.70 or 0.85 to get the maximum heart BPM.

To determine the heart rate during physical activity, the person will need to stop briefly to check his or her pulse using the tips of the middle and index fingers. As previously discussed, the pulse should be checked for one minute. While it can be taken at the usual pulse points, such as the neck, chest or wrist, ideally the simplest area to check is the artery of the wrist. Compare the number of BPM to the pre-calculated target heart rate for the level of activity.

Heart Healthy Resources

  • What is Heart Disease: An American Heart Association web page that briefly answers what heart disease is. Includes links to further heart information such as arrhythmia, heart attack and heart failure.

  • WomensHealth.gov: Heart Disease Fact Sheet: A heart disease fact sheet on the Womenshealth.gov website. This page answers common questions about heart disease pertaining primarily to women.

  • Coronary Heart Disease: A PDF form from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. This at-a-glance fact sheet deals with coronary heart disease and its causes, risk factors, treatment and prevention.

  • MayoClinic: Heart Disease: Mayo Clinic article on heart disease. This resource covers the definition, symptoms, causes, risk factors, complications, tests and treatments relating to heart disease.

  • CDC Heart Disease Prevention: What You Can Do: A page on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention web page that covers the topic of preventing heart disease. This resource reviews how a healthy lifestyle can help to minimize the risk of heart disease.

  • What Are The Symptoms of Heart Disease?: This resource explains what some of the common heart disease symptoms are. The page also includes an illustration of a heart attack.

  • Heart Disease: Tips for Prevention: A resource from the University of Maryland Medical Center. This page discusses heart disease and provides some general prevention tips and reviews risk factors.

  • Heart Disease Risk Factors: A resource that reviews the risk factors for heart disease. Lists each of the risks and gives a brief explanation.

  • The Heart Handbook for Women PDF: A PDF handbook for women by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This PDF discusses getting the word out about heart disease and women, major and other risk factors, and how to get help.