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Checking your pulse is easy and most people are able to do it once they learn the proper technique. You may already be an experienced pulse-taker; perhaps you have checked your pulse while exercising, to tell how fast your heart is beating. This technique may be different from the way you have evaluated your pulse in the past.

When you check your pulse for an irregular heartbeat that may indicate AF, you don’t count the beats. Instead, you pay attention to whether the beats are evenly spaced and steady, not how rapidly your heart is beating. A normal heartbeat is so regular and constant that you can predict when the next beat will occur. In AF, there are many missed, skipped or extra beats. There are irregular intervals between the beats; you can’t predict when the next beat will occur.

Regular Pulse-Beat or Heart-Beat Irregular Pulse-Beat or Heart-Beat
Steady and even Unsteady and uneven
Beats in a constant fashion Not constant
Like the steady ticking of a clock Ticks erratically
Even pattern of beats Uneven pattern of beats
Uniform thumping Many missed or extra beats
Same strength to each beat Some beats are stronger and some are weaker

This is the pattern of a regular pulse with the beats represented by dashes. Notice that the beats are steady and uniform, with even spacing between them.

This is the pattern of an irregular pulse. Notice that the beats are unsteady and uneven. You can see where there have been missed beats and extra beats, and that the interval between beats is irregular and unpredictable.

If your pulse feels irregular, unsteady and uneven, you might have Atrial Fibrillation (or AF) and could be at increased risk for a stroke.

Now that you know the difference between a regular and an irregular pulse, learn more about checking your pulse:

How is this technique different from checking my pulse to see how fast it is beating?

You may already know how to take your pulse. Perhaps you have checked it while exercising, to see how fast your heart is beating. You may already know that one of the easiest places to find your pulse is at your wrist. However, there is something very different about our technique, compared to the way you have always listened to your pulse-beat.

When you are checking your pulse for an irregular heartbeat that may indicate AF, you are NOT counting the beats. You will be feeling your pulse to see if it is steady and constant; feeling the rhythm and the pattern of the beats. You won't need to count how many beats occur each minute. You will pay more attention to the uniformity and constancy of the thumping. A pulse that beats in a steady pattern is called a regular pulse. A pulse that beats erratically, with many extra or missed beats, is called an irregular pulse and might mean you have AF.

Even if your pulse is very irregular, it does not necessarily mean you have AF. By doing a simple, painless electrocardiogram (ECG), your doctor can tell for sure. AF is not an emergency, but if you think you have an irregular pulse, consult a physician soon.

The only way to completely confirm AF is by using an ECG. During the ECG, electrodes that detect electrical impulses from the heart are placed on the chest. The impulses appear on a television screen or a strip of paper called an ECG strip. By evaluating the pattern of the electrical impulses on the screen or the ECG strip, a doctor can determine whether a patient has AF.

An irregular pulse is NOT an emergency. However, if you think you have an irregular pulse, consult a physician soon. Your doctor can determine if you have AF.

Irregular pulse Not an emergency Consult a physician soon
Stroke symptoms EMERGENCY! Call 911, Seek immediate treatment
Heart attack symptoms EMERGENCY! Call 911, Seek immediate treatment

Keep in mind that the warning signs and symptoms of a stroke or heart attack ARE an emergency. Print out a copy of the stroke and heart attack symptoms. Keep them handy (perhaps taped on your refrigerator?). If you experience one or more of the symptoms, call 911 - seek emergency treatment immediately.

Print out a handy reference ofstroke & heart attack symptoms.

AF can be treated, reducing your risk of stroke. Many people continue to live normal lives after being diagnosed and given proper treatment for AF.

Whenever possible, your doctor will try to bring your heartbeat back to a normal, regular beat. Frequently, this can be done with medications or the use of electrical stimulation.

When these efforts do not work, AF treatment concentrates on protecting you from stroke-causing clots. To reduce the risk of stroke, your doctor may then prescribe a clot prevention drug called warfarin (Coumadin®) or, in some cases, aspirin. Medications can greatly reduce the risk of stroke, but need to be taken properly and monitored. Be sure you understand all the risks and responsibilities before you begin any treatment.

Get into the habit of checking your pulse every month. AF can come and go and frequently has no symptoms. As you get older, your risk of having AF increases. So, getting into the habit of checking your pulse now is a good idea. Even if your pulse is regular now, check it once a month - particularly if you are over 55. Talk to your doctor about any sense you might have that your pulse is irregular.