Blood, which supplies all the cells in the human body with nutrients and oxygen, flows through the vessels due to the pumping of the heart. Thus, blood flow directly transmits the force generated by every heartbeat. As the blood ejected by the heart causes the arteries to “pulse” by stretching and relaxing. As some pulses can be felt over the skin, they are very useful in patient examinations, especially a clinical exam of the cardiovascular system. Although people commonly know how to take a pulse from the wrist or neck, there are many more places a pulse can be taken from.
- Radial pulse: Taken from the inside of the wrist on the side of the thumb.
- Brachial pulse: Taken from the inside of the elbow.
- Carotid pulse: Taken from where the neck meets the jawline, or 2~3cm either side of the Adam’s apple to be precise.
- Apex beat: This measures the heartbeats directly, taken on the left chest between the 4th and 6th ribs (around the left nipple).
- Abdominal pulse: Taken from above the belly button of a lying patient, may be able to see the pulse.
- Femoral pulse: Taken from the middle of the groin.
- Popliteal pulse: Taken from the inside of the knee.
- Posterior tibial pulse: Taken from the inside of the ankle behind the bone.
- Dorsalis pedis pulse: Taken from the back (upper side) of the foot along the middle.
When taking a pulse, you use your second and third fingers (and the fourth if you want) and press lightly on the pulse point. If you press too hard, you may stop the blood flow and obliterate the pulse. As a pulse is measured per-minute, it is often taken for 10 or 15 seconds and multiplied by 6 or 4 respectively. Also, it should be noted whether the pulse has a regular rhythm, and if it is irregular, whether it is regularly irregular or irregularly irregular. If the pulse is over 100 beats per minute, it is called tachycardia, while less than 60 beats per minute is referred to as bradycardia. If it is irregular, it is called an arrhythmia.
An experienced doctor can diagnose different conditions such as an aortic stenosis or atrial fibrillation just from taking the pulse of the patient. Taking a pulse is also a crucial diagnostic tool in traditional Korean and Chinese medicine.
Unlike diseases such as tuberculosis or cancer, some disease processes are known to kill a human being within an hour of onset. Other than the obvious causes such as decapitation, massive bleeding or any other trauma-related injuries, these diseases tend to be cardiac or respiratory in origin.
A common example is coronary artery disease, where the blood vessel providing blood to an area of the heart becomes completely blocked by stenosis (narrowing, often by atherosclerosis) or a clot. This results in immediate ischaemia (lack of oxygen) to heart muscles, which causes cell death. This produces scar tissue which disrupts the electrical activity of the heart, which may lead to a condition called ventricular fibrillation where the heart beats in an uncontrolled, erratic manner. When in VF, the heart effectively becomes useless as it cannot coordinate proper pumping function. Blood circulation stops and the patient goes in to multiple organ failure (the brain goes first) within a very short time. Although it can kill within a short time, early identification and treatment may be able to prevent VF from occurring and save the patient’s life. If VF does occur, it is crucial to begin CPR or use a defibrillator if available.
VF can also occur in other situations. For example, there is a genetic condition called long QT syndrome which predisposes the patient to spontaneous arrhythmias (electrical abnormalities in the heart). Even becoming too excited can sometimes set off a VF in some LQTS patients, thus they require an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) to shock their heart back in to normal rhythm every time they develop an arrhythmia.
Some other causes of sudden death include: aortic dissection (tearing of the aorta that may cause massive internal bleeding), pulmonary embolism (a clot obstructs blood flow in the lung, stopping circulation), commotio cordis (a blow to the heart at a certain moment in the heart rhythm triggers VF), ruptured brain aneurysm (ballooning of an artery in the brain), anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction that cuts off airflow to the lungs) and poisoning (various mechanisms, mainly related to disrupting cellular function).
Death can strike swiftly, even from within your body.