What are the Different Ways of Taking a Pulse?

Jillian Peterson

There are four main ways to take a pulse: using the veins in the wrist, the arteries in the neck or knee, or using medical equipment like a stethoscope or an oximeter, a device that measures pulse through the fingertip. A person’s pulse is basically the number of times his or her heart beats in a minute. Given the heart’s location deep within the chest, actually listening to it isn’t always the best way to count, particularly for people without medical equipment. Beats can be felt in other places more easily, usually where major arteries or blood channels flow relatively close to the surface of the skin.

An individual's pulse rate, or heart rate, can be measured by locating a major artery.
An individual's pulse rate, or heart rate, can be measured by locating a major artery.

Overarching Importance

Medical experts often recommend that people learn how to take their own pulse both as a way of monitoring overall health and as a means of keeping tabs on conditions like high blood pressure. An irregular pulse or high pulse rate can be an indication of serious health risks. By checking the pulse regularly, it is possible to catch these types of early warning signs and seek medical attention before the condition escalates to a dangerous level.

Pulse may be measured with a stethoscope.
Pulse may be measured with a stethoscope.

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Using the Wrist

People often find that the radial pulse is the easiest to take. The most common method is to place two fingers on the wrist close to the thumb. Feeling a rhythmic pulsing here is normal; this is the blood flowing through the radial artery. People should count the number of pulses felt during a 60 second period to determine the pulse rate. It is important to use the first and second fingers of the hand and not the thumb since the thumb has a pulse of its own that can be confused for the radial pulse.

The neck pulse can be taken via carotid artery, which carries blood from the heart to the brain.
The neck pulse can be taken via carotid artery, which carries blood from the heart to the brain.

Arteries in the Knees

The popliteal pulse can be counted using the same method, just on the inside of the knee rather than the wrist. Ideally, the person taking the pulse should press his or her fingers gently but firmly in the center of the inner knee, right where the leg bends inwards. This method typically works best when the individual being measured is standing upright. The radial and popliteal methods often take a little bit of practice to master. If a person has trouble getting good results, the carotid method may prove less difficult.

Feeling the Neck

The carotid arteries are the large arteries located on either side of the neck. These are two of the body’s largest, and as such they are typically the easiest to use for pulse purposes. Experts usually recommend that people again use two fingers for this method, which should be placed on the side of the neck just under the chin.

With a Stethoscope

Medical professionals traditionally use what’s known as the “apical method” of taking a pulse. The method is straightforward; basically, the care provider places a stethoscope over the heart and manually counts the number of beats that occur within sixty seconds. One of the biggest benefits to this method is that it allows the medical professional to identify any variations in the sound of the heart in addition to the rate of the pulse.

Other Medical Tools

Many modern clinics and practices also use digital tools to collect pulse information. Tools known as “oximeters” are common in these situations. Oximeters are small devices that clip painlessly onto the tops of peoples’ fingers and count the beats coursing through the veins there. The results are usually very accurate but are nearly impossible to replicate without sensitive equipment.

Defining “Normal”

The normal pulse rate for an individual varies depending on medical conditions, activity level, medications, and other health factors. A medical professional should be consulted to learn the target rate for each individual. Checking and recording heart rates should generally be done when a person is involved in a heavy exercise routine or begins new medications that may impact the heart, as well as for people who suffer from medical conditions that involve the heart or blood pressure more generally.

The radial pulse is taken on the side of the wrist.
The radial pulse is taken on the side of the wrist.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - Don't just learn how to take a pulse at the wrist. That one is faint enough that it might not be apparent in someone who is having trouble.

The throat is the more easily detected pulse, once you know how to find it in the first place. For first aid, that's the one that I would pick first, although, of course, it's not always a good idea to try and move someone so that you can find it.


@umbra21 - There isn't a need to search for it anyway, at least on the wrist. Just use your first two fingers (never the thumb, because it has its own pulse and might confuse you) and place them at the edge of the wrist, right underneath the pad at the base of the thumb. Fit them into the space between the tendon and the bone there (flex the hand if you need to find that, but it's right at the edge of the underside of the wrist), and press them in quite firmly.

Taking a pulse is something that you really ought to practice on yourself until you know how to do it, in case you ever need to do it for someone else.


I think what happens is that most people aren't patient enough to hear a pulse. They expect it to be apparent immediately, and will shift their fingers around looking for it if they don't feel it.

But in my experience, you have to leave your fingers in one place for a few moments before you can detect it.

You also have to apply the right pressure. So if you shift your fingers too much in searching for it to jump out at you, you aren't going to end up feeling it at all.

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