Almost all blood pressure monitors give you three numbers at the end of their measurement. The systolic and diastolic blood pressure and your pulse. We always focus on the blood pressure numbers, but is there anything useful to learn from your pulse when it comes to measuring your blood pressure?
In an earlier blog post I discussed the pulse rate and what we can learn from that. But there’s another more subtle aspect to the pulse that is also important – pulse regularity. You may have spotted that some of the more expensive blood pressure monitors can detect this for you (they often use words like arrhythmia, AF or atrial fibrillation).
Is your pulse regular?
Just like the ticking of a quartz watch is governed by tiny impulses from a quartz crystal, the heart has an area called the sino-atrial node which produces impulses that time its beats. And just like a clock, for most of us these impulses occur at a regular pace which results in a normal regular heart beat.
What happens if my pulse is irregular?
Some people have a pulse that isn’t regular like a clock. A lot of us might have an occasional skipped beat and this is of no consequence. But for some the underlying regular beat has completely gone and the beats essentially occur at random.
You’d imagine this would be obvious wouldn’t you? Not necessarily. The irregular beat can be fast and then it is often felt as a fluttering or beating in the chest. It can also make us breathless. But if the heart rate doesn’t change much then the irregularity often goes unnoticed.
Why should I care?
So, if I don’t feel this, why does it matter? Well, the good news is that having an irregular pulse doesn’t seem to have a major impact on the health of our hearts. So long as the heart isn’t also beating very fast, the irregularity doesn’t upset things too much.
The bad news is that an irregular pulse can significantly increase your risk of having a stroke. This is why it is important to detect it and treat it if necessary. So, if you’re lucky enough to have one of the blood pressure monitors that detects an irregular pulse, do let your doctor know if it warns you about this. But don’t panic! The risk of stroke is a ‘slow’ one so there is no emergency. Just like high blood pressure increases the risk of having a stroke over time.
The final reason to care about an irregular pulse is that standard home blood pressure monitors won’t take an accurate blood pressure reading if your pulse is irregular.