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Planning Retirement Online

Feel the beat                                                                       July 2009 

FEEL THE BEAT – it’s probably more important that you realise

heartbeatA friend of mine said she occasionally felt a bit breathless and one day, when she ran for a train and nearly fainted, she decided to mention it to her doctor.
She nearly didn’t go to the doctor – generally, she felt fine and fit and wondered if she was imagining things or making too much of small incidents.

The doctor knew better. My friend was immediately sent to a specialist and that afternoon she was in hospital for an operation to insert a pacemaker.

The problem my friend had experienced was arrhythmia. Her heart had got out of “synch” and was no longer beating with its normal rate and rhythm.

A normal heart usually beats between 60 and 100 times a minute for a resting adult – obviously this increases during exercise.

When a heart is beating too slowly, at less that 60 beats a minute, you can feel tired, light-headed, faint or dizzy. This condition is known as bradycardia.

When a heart is beating too quickly (tachycardia) you can experience similar symptoms, light-headedness and dizziness and also palpitations.

Sometimes you can feel your heart is beating in a slightly unusual manner, too fast or too slowly; sometimes you will experience only minor symptoms.

The overall name for a disturbed heart rhythm is arrhythmia. Cardiac arrhythmia is the number one killer in the UK. More than two million people have an arrhythmia and it affects people of any age. Untreated, arrhythmia can lead to sudden cardiac arrest, stroke and lost of consciousness.

Last month a new nationwide campaign was launched to encourage everyone to “know their pulse” in order to help prevent deaths from cardiac arrhythmias.


The British Heart Foundation has put together some good guidelines about checking your pulse rate. They say checking your pulse is simple and easy. Every heartbeat creates a wave of pressure as blood flows along the arteries. Where these arteries lie close to the surface of your skin, such as in your wrist or on the side of your neck just below your jawbone, this pressure wave can be felt as a pulse.

Their step by step guide to checking your pulse says:

First, get a clock or watch with a clear second hand or an electronic second display.

Step one:
An easy pulse to find is on the inside of your wrist, just above your palm. Put your right and middle fingers together and, using the pads of these fingers, place them just below the wrist creases at the base of the thumb. You make have to experiment a little before you find the exact position to feel your pulse. You should be able to feel it on both your right and left wrists.

Step two:
Press this artery with your index finger and feel the pulsation (blood pulsing under your fingers) with your middle finger by gently touching the skin whilst maintaining a firm pressure with your index finger. If necessary, move fingers around until you can feel the pulse.

Step three:
As soon as you feel the pulsations, look at your clock or watch and start counting the number of pulsations and continue to count for one full minute.

Step four:
A normal pulse rate is between 60 to 100 beats per minute. Your pulse might be higher if you have a high temperature or fever. Top athletes can have a resting pulse of as low as the 40s.

Step five:
Besides the number of pulsations, you should also check the rhythm or regularity of the pulse. A normal pulse is strong and regular. An irregular pulse may mean that you have a heart rhythm problem, such as atrial fibrillation.

If your pulse is irregular or if it is too fast or slow, notify your doctor.
Top tip! Don’t use your thumb to check a pulse as your thumb has its own pulse.

If you are diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, your doctor may arrange for an electrocardiogram to be taken to build up a picture of your heart’s rhythm. These results are analysed by a computer. For slow heartbeats, a cardiac pacemaker can be fitted. These provide electrical stimulation to help the heart regain and maintain its normal rhythm. A pacemaker is small and can be tucked comfortably below the skin; after recovery it won’t show and you will be virtually unaware it is there.

If the heartbeat is fast, there are drugs or other procedures, sometimes using radio frequencies, that can be used to correct the problem.

If you have problems checking your own pulse, most commercial blood pressure machines available from chemists and specialist stores also measure blood pressure.

With sudden cardiac arrests caused by arrhythmias leading to more deaths than breast cancer, lung cancer and AIDS combined, regularly checking your pulse really does make a lot of sense.

More information is available from:

British Heart Foundation

BUPA have a fact sheet on it:

There is also an Arrhythmia Alliance on:

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