An irregular pulse could be a sign that you have an
abnormal heart rhythm. Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is one of the
most common forms of an abnormal heart rhythm
and a major cause of stroke.
That's why it's important to find out if you have it,
because you can get effective treatment to reduce the risk of
Normally, your heart’s natural pacemaker sends out regular
electrical impulses. AF happens when those
fire off from different places in the
(the top chambers of the heart) in a
People with AF have an irregular and sometimes fast pulse. You
can check to see if you might have AF simply by feeling
Around 800,000 people in the UK have AF - roughly one in
100 - and mostly aged 55 and over.
Find out how our
newest Professor Barbara Casadei at Oxford University is helping us
beat atrial fibrillation.
What causes AF?
Causes include high blood pressure,
heart valve disease, thyrotoxicosis
(overactive thyroid gland) and excess alcohol consumption.
It’s also associated with coronary heart
disease. But in many patients no underlying cause can be found.
Sometimes the AF can be resolved once the underlying condition has
been dealt with.
What are the symptoms of AF?
Symptoms can include palpitation (being aware
of your heart beat), tiredness, shortness
of breath, dizziness or feeling
faint. However, some people only have mild symptoms, while
other people have no symptoms at all.
How can AF be detected?
AF can be detected by feeling the pulse at
your wrist. The pulse will feel irregular and beats may be
variable in strength.
Some people don’t realise they have AF. It’s only discovered
when they have a pulse check or ECG (a test which records the electrical
activity of the heart).
Make sure you Know
If your pulse is irregular or if you’re concerned in any way
about your pulse you should make an appointment to see your GP.
Is an irregular pulse always due to AF?
Occasional irregularities such as missed beats
or extra beats are very common and usually nothing
to worry about.
AF on the other hand is continuously irregular with no pattern
to it at all.
What are the complications of AF?
It can increase the risk of a
blood clot forming inside the chambers of the
heart, which can lead to a stroke. AF increases stroke
risk by around four to five times.
Although AF can greatly increase the risk of stroke, there are
other factors that can contribute to a stroke. These include
cholesterol, high blood pressure,
physical inactivity, being overweight and diabetes.
With appropriate treatment the risk of stroke, can be
substantially reduced. An anticoagulant (blood thinner) drug called
Warfarin is the most effective treatment to reduce
the risk of stroke in people with AF.
What should you do if your pulse is irregular?
If your pulse is irregular or if you’re
concerned in any way about your pulse you should make an
appointment to see your GP.
Read our interview
with Dr Dhiraj Gupta, in our 'Focus on atrial fibrillation' in
heart matters magazine
A quick guide to checking your pulse
- Put one of your hands out so you’re looking at your palm.
- Use the index/first finger and middle finger of your other hand
and place the pads of these fingers on the inside of your
You should place them at the base of your thumb near where the
strap of a watch would sit.
- Press lightly and feel the pulse. If you can’t feel anything
press slightly harder or move your fingers around until you feel
- Once you’ve found your pulse, continue to feel it for about
20-30 seconds.Feel the rhythm of the pulse and check if it’s
regular or irregular.
Listen to these examples
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