Measuring your pulse by hand – what you should pay attention to and what the values ​​mean

Measuring your own pulse regularly is important and useful. Experts say that too. Instead of an expensive heart rate monitor, a little sure instinct is enough. Read here how you can quickly feel your pulse and determine it correctly – and what conclusions can be drawn from the values.

Every time our heart muscle contracts and in doing so pumps blood through the body’s arteries, it creates a noticeable and tangible pressure wave that continues through the entire bloodstream into the capillaries. That’s the  pulse . The arterial pulse can be easily felt at various points in the body. The best place where a large artery – as close as possible under the skin – runs. Measured regularly and correctly – and interpreted by a doctor, it is a reliable parameter for our physical condition. Important: measuring your heart rate doesn’t have to be a science.

Measuring your heart rate manually – where does it work best?

As already mentioned, different parts of the body are suitable for determining the pulse without technical aids such as pulse monitors or EKG. “The pulse is usually measured on the radial artery (editor’s note: on the inside of the wrist below the thumb),” advises Professor Dr. Martin Scherer , Director of the Institute for General Practice at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf. Other points where the arterial pulse can be felt well are:

  • Carotid artery
  • Armpit (axillary artery)
  • Groin (femoral artery)
  • Popliteal artery
  • behind the inner ankle of the foot (arteria tibialis posterior)
  • on the middle of the foot (arteria dorsalis pedis)
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Measuring your pulse on your wrist – that’s how it works

To measure the pulse on the wrist, you need your fingers and either a watch with a seconds display or a smartphone. First, feel with the fingertips of two or three fingers – ideally: index and middle fingers, possibly also ring fingers – until you can feel the pumping vein. Depending on the disposition, this may require more or less pressure. Play around a little to find out at which pressure point you feel the pressure wave most clearly. Important: A grip that is too tight can squeeze the vein so that you can no longer feel the pulse. 

Even the thumb won’t get you anywhere when measuring the arterial pulse. He himself has a strong pulse, which is superimposed on the wrist and does not allow any reliable result. The same applies to measuring the pulse on the carotid artery. Here, too, you can feel the blood pressure wave best and most reliably with your index and middle fingers. If you want to document your pulse over a longer period of time, you should always measure on the same artery.

How long do you measure your heart rate?

Ideally, start the stopwatch and count each pulse for a minute. If this is too strenuous for you, you can shorten the whole thing to 30 seconds and double the calculated value. It becomes a little less precise if you shorten the measurement time further. With a ten-second interval, a sensed and counted pulse can more or less result in six beats. If you want to know exactly, you should repeat the measurement three times and calculate the mean value from the results. 

When to measure your pulse?

In order to obtain comparable values, you should always measure your pulse at around the same time of day, if possible. We recommend the time in the morning – immediately after waking up, but before getting up or breakfast – and preferably in a lying position. Take a few minutes and take a few deep breaths. The value that you determine in bed in the morning is also referred to in medicine as the resting pulse or resting heart rate. It depends on various biometric and physiological factors.

The average values ​​apply to:

  • Competitive athletes: approx. 40 beats / minute
  • Recreational athletes: 60-70 beats / minute
  • Teenagers: about 80 beats / minute
  • Untrained adults: approx. 80 beats / minute
  • Elementary school students: approx. 85 beats / minute
  • Children (4-5 years): approx. 100 beats / minute
  • Infant: approx. 130 beats / minute.

Which pulse is normal?

First of all, one should know that even a healthy heart does not beat like clockwork. For a “normal” pulse rate, doctors give a corridor of 60 to 90 beats per minute. Broken down to the ten-second interval already mentioned, this corresponds to between ten and 15 beats per ten seconds. These values ​​correspond to the heart rate in the resting state – commonly – as already described – also known as the resting heart rate. This value depends on various factors – including age, gender, height, weight and the level of training. For example, people who do sports regularly (preferably endurance sports) usually have a measurably lower resting heart rate than the so-called couch potatoes. The reason is simple. A trained heart muscle is significantly more efficient, which is particularly noticeable in the better oxygen uptake. The heart pumps the same amount of blood around the body with fewer contractions. 

Measuring a manual pulse: why actually?

Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common cardiac arrhythmias in Germany. However, some sufferers do not even notice for a long time that their heart is beating irregularly. This is dangerous because atrial fibrillation is a common cause of strokes. And this is exactly where the chance of manual pulse measurement lies. “For patients with undetected atrial fibrillation […] this can be a method to detect the irregular heartbeat and start treatment,” says Professor Dr. Clipper. Checking the heart rate can also be helpful in the case of impending infections. As a rule of thumb for adults, the doctor formulates: “At rest, the heart rate should not exceed 100 beats per minute,” says Scherer. It is also a good tool 

Heart attack: high pulse at rest, higher risk 

A study by the German Cardiac Society (DGK) in 2015 suggested that the (resting) heart rate in middle-aged people (and without known cardiovascular disease) is an independent risk marker for heart attacks and all-round mortality. Accordingly, the risk of a heart attack in subjects with a resting heart rate of more than 70 beats per minute was almost 90 percent higher than in subjects whose heart beats less than 70 times per minute at rest. It can therefore make sense to check your own pulse regularly and, if in doubt, to see your doctor.

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