The pulse rate is the number of times a person's heart beats in one minute.
Who is a candidate for the test?
The pulse rate can give important information about overall health and fitness. It is measured as part of a physical exam. Whenever a person has an appointment with a healthcare professional, the pulse rate is measured routinely.
How is the test performed?
This test can be performed by anyone. It is done by putting pressure on any artery in which pulsations can be felt. An artery on the thumb side of the wrist is commonly used to feel the pulse. Pulses can also be felt behind the knee, on top of the foot, or in the neck, temple, or groin. The number of pulsations that occur in one minute is the pulse rate. This is usually equal to the heart rate, unless the heart has certain rare electrical or mechanical problems.
What is involved in preparation for the test?
No preparation is needed for this test. It can be performed at any time.
What do the test results mean?
Normal values for the pulse rate depend on the person's age and fitness level. The pulse should be regular, meaning that the time between pulsations is the same. Some examples of normal pulse rates, in beats per minute (bpm)are:
- children less than 1 year old: 100 to 160 bpm
- children between 1 and 10 years old: 70 to 120 bpm
- people more than 10 years old: 60 to 100 bpm
- trained athletes: 40 to 60 bpm
Abnormal pulse rates can be:
- a slow pulse, called bradycardia
- a fast pulse, called tachycardia
- an irregular pulse, with beats coming at varying intervals
A pulse can be abnormally slow or fast, and irregular at the same time.
Slow pulse rates:
- can be normal in well-trained athletes
- can indicate an electrical problem inside the heart, often called an arrhythmia. For example, an electrical problem known as third degree heart block may cause a slow pulse rate.
- can indicate low thyroid hormone levels, called hypothyroidism
- can be caused by several medications, such as atenolol (i.e., Tenormin) or diltiazem (i.e., Cardizem, Cartia XT, Dilacor XR, Dilt-CD, Diltia XT, Taztia XT, Tiazac), which are both often used to treat high blood pressure
- can be caused by other conditions, such as increased pressure inside the skull, often called increased intracranial pressure
Fast pulse rates:
- occur normally during and after exercise
- can indicate an electrical problem in the heart, often called an arrhythmia. For example, an electrical problem called atrial tachycardia may cause a fast pulse rate.
- can be caused by many other conditions, including fever, dehydration, fear, hormone problems, and heart defects. For example, a high thyroid hormone level, or hyperthyroidism, can cause a fast pulse rate. A congenital heart defect known as tetralogy of Fallot may also cause a fast pulse rate.
An irregular pulse often indicates an electrical problem in the heart. This may be normal for a given person or may indicate a life-threatening problem. For example, irregular pulse rates can be due to a heart attack or to enlargement of the heart.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.
Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 1996, Behrman et al.