Your pulse is the rate at which your heart beats. It can be felt at different pulse points on your body, such as your wrist, neck, or groin.
When a person is seriously injured or ill, it may be hard to feel their pulse. When their pulse is absent, you can’t feel it at all.
A weak or absent pulse is considered a medical emergency. Usually, this symptom indicates a serious problem in the body. A person with a weak or absent pulse will often have difficulty moving or speaking. If someone has this condition, call 911 immediately.
You can identify a weak or absent pulse by checking a pulse point on someone’s wrist or neck. It’s important to check the pulse correctly. Otherwise, you could mistakenly report a weak pulse. Follow these instructions to check each pulse point:
- Wrist: Place your index and middle fingers on the underside of their wrist, below the base of their thumb. Make sure to press firmly.
- Neck: Place your index and middle fingers next to their Adam’s apple, in the soft hollow area. Make sure to press firmly.
If you identify a weak or absent pulse in someone, call 911 immediately.
Once you find their pulse, count the beats for one full minute. Or count the beats for 30 seconds and multiply by two. This will give you their beats per minute. A normal resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 beats per minute.
You should also assess the regularity of the pulse. A regular pulse, meaning your heart beats at a consistent pace, is considered normal, whereas an irregular pulse is considered abnormal.
Some people may normally have a weak pulse. In this case, equipment can be used to measure their pulse properly. One type of equipment is a pulse oximeter. This is a small monitor placed on someone’s fingertip to measure the oxygen levels in their body.
Other symptoms may be present with a weak or absent pulse. These symptoms include:
- low blood pressure
- rapid or irregular heart rate
- shallow breathing
- sweaty skin
- pallor, or pale skin
- cold hands or feet
- chest pain
- shooting pain in the arms and legs
Shock happens when blood flow is reduced to vital organs. This causes a weak pulse, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and unconsciousness.
If someone has a weak or absent pulse and no effective heartbeat, you should perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Before beginning, determine whether the person is conscious or unconscious. If you’re not sure, tap on their shoulder or chest and ask loudly, “Are you OK?”
If there’s no response and a phone is handy, call 911. If someone else is available, ask them to call 911 for you. If you’re alone and the person is unresponsive because of suffocation — for example, from drowning — perform hands-only CPR for one minute. Then call 911.
To give chest compressions:
- Lay the person on a firm surface. Don’t move them if it looks like they might have a spinal injury or head injury.
- Kneel down beside the person’s chest.
- Place one of your hands on the center of their chest, and place your other hand on top of the first.
- Lean in with your shoulders, and apply pressure to the person’s chest by pushing down at least 2 inches. Make sure your hands are positioned in the center of the person’s chest.
- Count one, and then release the pressure. Keep doing these compressions at the rate of 100 per minute until the person shows signs of life or until paramedics arrive.
In 2018, the American Heart Association released updated guidelines for CPR. If you’re not trained in CPR but would like to be, call your local Red Cross for information on classes in your area.
At the hospital, the person’s doctor will use pulse-monitoring equipment to measure their pulse. If there’s no effective heartbeat or the person isn’t breathing, emergency staff will administer appropriate care to restore their vital signs.
Once the cause is discovered, their doctor will prescribe necessary medications. Or they may give a list of things to avoid, such as foods that cause allergic reactions.
If necessary, the person will follow up with their primary care doctor.
A person may have bruised or fractured ribs if they received CPR. If their breathing or heartbeat stopped for a significant amount of time, they may have organ damage. Organ damage can be caused by tissue death from lack of oxygen.
More serious complications may occur if they had no effective heartbeat and their pulse wasn’t restored quickly enough. These complications can include:
- coma, caused by lack of blood and oxygen to the brain, typically following cardiac arrest
- shock, caused by insufficient blood pressure to the vital organs
- death, caused by lack of circulation and oxygen to the heart muscle
A weak or absent pulse can be a serious problem. Call 911 if someone has a weak or absent pulse and is struggling to move or speak. Getting treatment quickly can help prevent any complications.