In medicine, a pulse represents the tactile arterial palpation of the heartbeat by trained fingertips. The pulse may be palpated in any place that allows an artery to be compressed near the surface of the body, such as at the neck (carotid artery), wrist (radial artery), at the groin (femoral artery), behind the knee (popliteal artery), near the ankle joint (posterior tibial artery), and on foot (dorsalis pedis artery). Pulse (or the count of arterial pulse per minute) is equivalent to measuring the heart rate. The heart rate can also be measured by listening to the heart beat by auscultation, traditionally using a stethoscope and counting it for a minute. The radial pulse is commonly measured using three fingers. This has a reason: the finger closest to the heart is used to occlude the pulse pressure, the middle finger is used get a crude estimate of the blood pressure, and the finger most distal to the heart (usually the ring finger) is used to nullify the effect of the ulnar pulse as the two arteries are connected via the palmar arches (superficial and deep). The study of the pulse is known as sphygmology.

Diagram of the rise and lower of blood pressure from a pulse.
Biological systemCirculatory system
MethodHeart pumps blood using reciprocating method causing inconstant blood flow throughout the circulatory system that can be recognized. (See Cardiac cycle)
Frequency60–100 per minute (Humans)
Duration0.6–1 second (Humans)
Animalia with the exception of Porifera, Cnidaria, Ctenophora, Platyhelminthes, Bryozoan, Amphioxus.


Pulse evaluation at the radial artery.
Recommended points to evaluate pulse

Claudius Galen was perhaps the first physiologist to describe the pulse.[1] The pulse is an expedient tactile method of determination of systolic blood pressure to a trained observer. Diastolic blood pressure is non-palpable and unobservable by tactile methods, occurring between heartbeats.

Pressure waves generated by the heart in systole move the arterial walls. Forward movement of blood occurs when the boundaries are pliable and compliant. These properties form enough to create a palpable pressure wave.

The heart rate may be greater or lesser than the pulse rate depending upon physiologic demand. In this case, the heart rate is determined by auscultation or audible sounds at the heart apex, in which case it is not the pulse. The pulse deficit (difference between heart beats and pulsations at the periphery) is determined by simultaneous palpation at the radial artery and auscultation at the PMI, near the heart apex. It may be present in case of premature beats or atrial fibrillation.

Pulse velocity, pulse deficits and much more physiologic data are readily and simplistically visualized by the use of one or more arterial catheters connected to a transducer and oscilloscope. This invasive technique has been commonly used in intensive care since the 1970s.

The rate of the pulse is observed and measured by tactile or visual means on the outside of an artery and is recorded as beats per minute or BPM.

The pulse may be further indirectly observed under light absorbances of varying wavelengths with assigned and inexpensively reproduced mathematical ratios. Applied capture of variances of light signal from the blood component hemoglobin under oxygenated vs. deoxygenated conditions allows the technology of pulse oximetry.

Characteristics of pulse


Normal pulse rates at rest, in beats per minute (BPM):[2]

(0–3 months old)
(3 – 6 months)
(6 – 12 months)
(1 – 10 years)
children over 10 years
& adults, including seniors
adult athletes
99-149 89–119 79-119 69–129 59–99 39–59

The pulse rate can be used to check overall heart health and fitness level. Generally lower is better, but bradycardias can be dangerous. Symptoms of a dangerously slow heartbeat include weakness, loss of energy and fainting.[3]


A normal pulse is regular in rhythm and force. An irregular pulse may be due to sinus arrhythmia, ectopic beats, atrial fibrillation, paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, atrial flutter, partial heart block etc. Intermittent dropping out of beats at pulse is called "intermittent pulse". Examples of regular intermittent (regularly irregular) pulse include pulsus bigeminus, second-degree atrioventricular block. An example of irregular intermittent (irregularly irregular) pulse is atrial fibrillation.


The degree of expansion displayed by artery during diastolic and systolic state is called volume. It is also known as amplitude, expansion or size of pulse.

Hypokinetic pulse

A weak pulse signifies narrow pulse pressure. It may be due to low cardiac output (as seen in shock, congestive cardiac failure), hypovolemia, valvular heart disease (such as aortic outflow tract obstruction, mitral stenosis, aortic arch syndrome) etc.

Hyperkinetic pulse

A bounding pulse signifies high pulse pressure. It may be due to low peripheral resistance (as seen in fever, anemia, thyrotoxicosis, hyperkinetic heart syndrome, A-V fistula, Paget's disease, beriberi, liver cirrhosis), increased cardiac output, increased stroke volume (as seen in anxiety, exercise, complete heart block, aortic regurgitation), decreased distensibility of arterial system (as seen in atherosclerosis, hypertension and coarctation of aorta).

The strength of the pulse can also be reported:[4][5]

  • 0 = Absent
  • 1 = Barely palpable
  • 2 = Easily palpable
  • 3 = Full
  • 4 = Aneurysmal or bounding pulse


Also known as compressibility of pulse. It is a rough measure of systolic blood pressure.


It corresponds to diastolic blood pressure. A low tension pulse (pulsus mollis), the vessel is soft or impalpable between beats. In high tension pulse (pulsus durus), vessels feel rigid even between pulse beats.


A form or contour of a pulse is palpatiory estimation of arteriogram. A quickly rising and quickly falling pulse (pulsus celer) is seen in aortic regurgitation. A slow rising and slowly falling pulse (pulsus tardus) is seen in aortic stenosis.


Comparing pulses and different places gives valuable clinical information.

A discrepant or unequal pulse between left and right radial artery is observed in anomalous or aberrant course of artery, coarctation of aorta, aortitis, dissecting aneurysm, peripheral embolism etc. An unequal pulse between upper and lower extremities is seen in coarctation to aorta, aortitis, block at bifurcation of aorta, dissection of aorta, iatrogenic trauma and arteriosclerotic obstruction.

Condition of arterial wall

A normal artery is not palpable after flattening by digital pressure. A thick radial artery which is palpable 7.5–10 cm up the forearm is suggestive of arteriosclerosis.

Radio-femoral delay

In coarctation of aorta, femoral pulse may be significantly delayed as compared to radial pulse (unless there is coexisting aortic regurgitation). The delay can also be observed in supravalvar aortic stenosis.


Several pulse patterns can be of clinically significance. These include:

  • Dicrotic pulse: is characterized by two beats per cardiac cycle, one systolic and the other diastolic. Physiologically, the dicrotic wave is the result of reflected waves from the lower extremities and aorta. Conditions associated with low cardiac output and high systemic vascular resistance can produce a dicrotic pulse.[6][7]
  • Pulsus alternans: an ominous medical sign that indicates progressive systolic heart failure. To trained fingertips, the examiner notes a pattern of a strong pulse followed by a weak pulse over and over again. This pulse signals a flagging effort of the heart to sustain itself in systole.
  • Pulsus bigeminus: indicates a pair of hoofbeats within each heartbeat. Concurrent auscultation of the heart may reveal a gallop rhythm of the native heartbeat.
  • Pulsus bisferiens: is characterized by two beats per cardiac cycle, both systolic, unlike the dicrotic pulse. It's an unusual physical finding typically seen in patients with aortic valve diseases if the aortic valve does not normally open and close. Trained fingertips will observe two pulses to each heartbeat instead of one.
  • Pulsus tardus et parvus, also pulsus parvus et tardus, slow-rising pulse and anacrotic pulse, is weak (parvus), and late (tardus) relative to its expected characteristics. It is caused by a stiffened aortic valve that makes it progressively harder to open, thus requiring increased generation of blood pressure in the left ventricle. It is seen in aortic valve stenosis.[7][8][9][10]
  • Pulsus paradoxus: a condition in which some heartbeats cannot be detected at the radial artery during the inspiration phase of respiration. It is caused by an exaggerated decrease in blood pressure during this phase, and is diagnostic of a variety of cardiac and respiratory conditions of varying urgency, such as cardiac tamponade.
  • Tachycardia: an elevated resting heart rate. In general an electrocardiogram (ECG) is required to identify the type of tachycardia.
  • Pulsatile This description of the pulse implies the intrinsic physiology of systole and diastole. Scientifically, systole and diastole are forces that expand and contract the pulmonary and systemic circulations.
  • A collapsing pulse is a sign of hyperdynamic circulation.

Common palpable sites

Sites can be divided into peripheral pulses and central pulses. Central pulses include the carotid, femoral, and brachial pulses.[11]

Upper limb

Front of right upper extremity
  • Axillary pulse: located inferiorly of the lateral wall of the axilla
  • Brachial pulse: located on the inside of the upper arm near the elbow, frequently used in place of carotid pulse in infants (brachial artery)
  • Radial pulse: located on the lateral of the wrist (radial artery). It can also be found in the anatomical snuff box.
  • Ulnar pulse: located on the medial of the wrist (ulnar artery).

Lower limb

  • Femoral pulse: located in the inner thigh, at the mid-inguinal point, halfway between the pubic symphysis and anterior superior iliac spine (femoral artery).
  • Popliteal pulse: Above the knee in the popliteal fossa, found by holding the bent knee. The patient bends the knee at approximately 124°, and the health care provider holds it in both hands to find the popliteal artery in the pit behind the knee (Popliteal artery).
  • Dorsalis pedis pulse: located on top of the foot, immediately lateral to the extensor of hallucis longus (dorsalis pedis artery).
  • Tibialis posterior pulse: located on the medial side of the ankle, 2 cm inferior and 2 cm posterior to the medial malleolus (posterior tibial artery). It is easily palpable over Pimenta's Point.

Head and neck

Arteries of the neck.
  • Carotid pulse: located in the neck (carotid artery). The carotid artery should be palpated gently and while the patient is sitting or lying down. Stimulating its baroreceptors with low palpitation can provoke severe bradycardia or even stop the heart in some sensitive persons. Also, a person's two carotid arteries should not be palpated at the same time. Doing so may limit the flow of blood to the head, possibly leading to fainting or brain ischemia. It can be felt between the anterior border of the sternocleidomastoid muscle, above the hyoid bone and lateral to the thyroid cartilage.
  • Facial pulse: located on the mandible (lower jawbone) on a line with the corners of the mouth (facial artery).
  • Temporal pulse: located on the temple directly in front of the ear (superficial temporal artery).

Although the pulse can be felt in multiple places in the head, people should not normally hear their heartbeats within the head. This is called pulsatile tinnitus, and it can indicate several medical disorders.


  • Apical pulse: located in the 5th left intercostal space, 1.25 cm lateral to the mid-clavicular line. In contrast with other pulse sites, the apical pulse site is unilateral, and measured not under an artery, but below the heart itself (more specifically, the apex of the heart). See also apex beat.


The first person to accurately measure the pulse rate was Santorio Santorii who invented the pulsilogium, a form of pendulum, based on the work by Galileo Galilei. A century later another physician, de Lacroix, used the pulsilogium to test cardiac function.

See also


  1. Temkin 165;BBC[a]
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - National Ites of Health Pulse
  3. "Pulse Rate Measurement". Healthwise. WebMD. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
  4. "www.meddean.luc.edu". Retrieved 2009-05-20.
  5. "Vascular Surgery, University of Kansas School of Medicine". Retrieved 2009-05-20.
  6. Dennis, Mark; Bowen, William Talbot; Cho, Lucy (2016). Mechanisms of Clinical Signs - EPub3. Elsevier Health Sciences. p. 177. ISBN 9780729585613.
  7. McGee, Steven (2016). Evidence-Based Physical Diagnosis E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences. pp. 105–106. ISBN 9780323508711.
  8. Li JC, Yuan Y, Qin W, et al. (April 2007). "Evaluation of the tardus-parvus pattern in patients with atherosclerotic and nonatherosclerotic renal artery stenosis". J Ultrasound Med. 26 (4): 419–26. PMID 17384038.
  9. Toy, Eugene, et al. Case Files: Internal Medicine. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. 2007. Page 43. ISBN 0-07-146303-8.
  10. Sanders, Roger C.; Winter, Thomas Charles (2007). Clinical Sonography: A Practical Guide. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 219. ISBN 9780781748698.
  11. Berg, Dale; Worzala, Katherine (2006). Atlas of Adult Physical Diagnosis. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 80. ISBN 9780781741903.
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