How to use a stethoscope to check your pulse rate

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Many persons believe that you need to go to a medical school or have a professional degree in order to be able to use a stethoscope and perform basic physical assessment checks, but that’s not always true. Although complex procedures require extremely specialized medical skills, there are some basic physical assessment checks that any person can do if they have access to a stethoscope with a minimum of preparation beforehand.  Checking your pulse rate is such an easy but effective procedure that can be performed knowing just the basics we are going to outline in this article.

Many people are able to perform basic pulse checks without the need of a stethoscope at all by simply palpating the artery with their fingers, but that’s not a very accurate method and it does not work on all persons as it greatly depends on their skin type. If you want to be able to reliably perform pulse rate checks you need to purchase a stethoscope. There is no need to purchase a top of the line stethoscope here as virtually any stethoscope, regardless of its quality, should be able to pick up the pulse sounds, so go with the cheapest option.  Do not spend lavishly on a Littmann stethoscope just because you might have heard they are the best, a cheap one like a Prestige or Omron works just as fine. You should be able to spend about $10-$20 for a good enough stethoscope.

A second item you definitively need in order to perform a pulse check is a digital watch or any device able to track time accurately down to seconds. A smartphone works as well if you have a chronometer app on it and even a traditional watch if it has a third hand that tracks seconds.  

To measure your pulse you will need to listen to your heartbeats by placing the chest piece on your heart. It’s optimal if you are wearing some light clothes so there are not that many layers of clothing between the chest piece and your heart. This is the where the quality of the stethoscope comes into play, the better the stethoscope is the clearer you will be able to hear the heartbeats regardless of how many clothing articles you have on you. The chest piece used for listening usually has two sides, a smaller one and a bigger one, called the bell and the diaphragm, and they are used to listen to both high frequency and low frequency sounds. All you need to know for now is that if you place it on one side and you do not hear anything, simply turn the chest piece over to the other side and you should be able to hear the sounds properly.

After you have properly placed the chest piece and you have your digital watch ready, it’s time to adjust the ear pieces to fit properly. The ear pieces are usually angled forward, so you need to place them in the direction you are looking in order to fit them comfortably in your ear and provide the easiest passage for the sound to travel. You are allowed to bend them a little bit in order to get them comfortable in your ears, as they are made of moldable material in order to fit all types of ear shapes.

Once you are equipped with everything as explained above, it’s time for the actual pulse check. Usually you can measure for how long you want and then extrapolate the ratio, but clinically anything less than 30 seconds is not considered long enough to get an accurate measurement.  A minute is recommended for beginners so you should count the number of heartbeats within 60 seconds. It is very important to notice that a heartbeat is composed of two consecutives sounds, one loud followed by a fainter one.

This is due to the heart’s succession of valves, but they both count as only one heartbeat for the pulse check. You can keep better check by counting only the louder sounds.

The official way to record pulse checks is BPM meaning beats per minute, which means if you have recorded for exactly one minute, then the number of beats you heard corresponds precisely to your BPM. Otherwise, if you have listened for just 30 seconds, you will need to perform some basic mathematics to arrive to your BMP.

If you liked this guide and you’re looking to purchase a stethoscope to assist you in the process, I keep a carefully curated selection of the best stethoscope reviews here.


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