American Osteopathic Association

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Taking Your Pulse Can Help Detect an Irregular Heart Rhythm

Woman taking her pulseNext time you check your heart rate for optimal fat-burning potential during a workout, consider checking your rhythm as well. Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common heart rhythm disorder that results in a flutter in the heartbeat caused by a problem in the upper chambers of the heart.

"While atrial fibrillation is not common among young people, it can occur at any age,” says Jeffry A. Lindenbaum, DO, an osteopathic family physician practicing in Yardley, Pennsylvania. “However, the likelihood of developing the condition increases with age."

Those who suffer from atrial fibrillation have abnormal electrical signals going to their atria. This abnormality causes the atria to fibrillate or quiver, resulting in less oxygen-rich blood being pumped out

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Risk Factors

"This disorder increases the risk of stroke because it causes a pooling of blood in the atria, making a patient prone to blood clots moving from the heart to vessels in the brain," explains Dr. Lindenbaum. "Heart attacks and heart failure can also result from this condition."

An irregular heart rhythm can be caused by:

  • High blood pressure.

  • Coronary artery disease and prior heart attacks.

  • Heart valve disease.

  • Other medical conditions, such as overactive thyroid or lung disease.

"Avoid excessive alcohol if you consider yourself at risk," Dr. Lindenbaum warns. "Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can cause episodes of atrial fibrillation."

Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well.

Conducting Your Monthly Pulse Check

The most extreme symptoms of this condition are acute chest pains or fainting. More common warning signs include weakness, shortness of breath and fluttering of the chest. However, since most people will not show any symptoms, Dr. Lindenbaum recommends adults, particularly individuals more than 65 years old, check their heartbeat or pulse once a month.

Follow these three easy steps for checking your pulse:

  • Place the tips of your third and fourth fingers on the palm side of your other wrist, below the base of the thumb or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe.

  • Find the blood pulsing beneath your fingers and count the beats you feel for 15 seconds.

  • Multiply this number by four to get your heart rate per minute. The usual resting heart rate for adults is approximately 60 beats per minute.

Dr. Lindenbaum recommends seeing your physician immediately if you detect an irregular rhythm. Your physician will use an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) and a physical exam of the heart to diagnose the disorder.


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