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On-Call Advice

Why is the pulse checked during a medical exam? 

Checking the pulse is a way to determine your heart rate, or how many times your heart beats per minute. Monitoring heart rate provides an indication of how strong the heart is and also can reveal any irregular heart rhythms. Knowing this information can help the care provider assess whether other symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness, may be coming from heart disease or some other cardiac condition.

Age, activity level and even the time of day can affect heart rate, but for most adults a normal resting heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute. However, it’s not unusual for athletes or others with high levels of fitness to have a resting heart rate as low as 40 or 50. A resting heart rate below 60 in a physically fit person often means the heart is more efficient in pumping blood. A slow heart rate that is not the result of physical fitness, however, may indicate an underactive thyroid or certain types of heart conditions.

A person’s resting heart rate can be faster than normal (greater than 100 beats per minute) due to the taking of certain medications like asthma medicine or decongestants, or due to the use of stimulants like caffeine, tobacco or amphetamines. Any physical activity that stresses the cardiovascular system also will increase heart rate. A fast heart rate that is not caused by medications, stimulants or increased activity may be an indication of stress, an overactive thyroid gland, anemia or certain types of heart disease. Rapid heart rate also may occur due to fever.

A weak pulse may indicate heart failure or heart disease, and a weak pulse in the extremities may be the result of a blockage in the arteries, a condition known as peripheral artery disease.

Many people take their own pulse during exercise to see if they’re working out at a healthy pace. Exercise will increase the heart rate, but it should come down to your normal resting rate within several minutes after exercise. If it doesn’t, you should see your doctor. People who exercise regularly may notice that their heart rate doesn’t go as high as it once did with the same amount of activity, and they also may notice that their resting heart rate becomes lower over time. Both results are indicators that the person is becoming more physically fit.

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