What your heart rate is telling you

Your heart is one of the most important organs in your body. It pumps the blood that provides the body with oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive.

When the heart doesn’t beat properly, it can’t pump blood effectively. Dr checking young girl's hear rate

Understanding your heart’s rhythm

Arrhythmia is a medical term for an irregular heartbeat or abnormal heart rhythm. The electrical impulses may happen too fast, too slowly, or erratically – causing the heart to beat too fast, too slowly, or erratically. 

Arrhythmias can occur in the upper chambers of the heart (atria), or in the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) and can affect people of all ages. 

What causes arrhythmia?

Arrhythmias can be caused by:

  • Pacemaker problems - when the heart’s natural pacemaker fails, or is overcome by the generation of rogue pulses from non-pacemaker cells.
  • Conduction problems - where the path of an electrical pulse is blocked or where the electrical signal somehow circles back to stimulate a second pulse instead of naturally ending. 

Symptoms to look out for

Some arrhythmias have no symptoms, while others have serious signs of illness.  The following are relatively common arrhythmia symptoms:

  • Premature beats, palpitations or skipped beats
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Light-headedness
  • Fainting

Being aware of your pulse is important because it may indicate an abnormal heart rate or rhythm.

What is a normal pulse? Dr checking a man's pulse

Between 60 and 100 beat per minute is considered to be a normal pulse, however there are many reasons why it might be slower or faster. This could be because of your age, medications, caffeine, level of fitness, any other illness including heart conditions, stress and anxiety.

One of the easiest places to feel your pulse is on your wrist, just below your thumb. You can feel your pulse in other areas of your body as well like the crease of your elbow, in your groin or behind your knee.

Try taking your pulse at different times throughout the day (before and after activities). It’s normal for your pulse rate to change during the day, depending on the activity you’re doing.

To get a baseline pulse and normal rhythm, the South African Arrhythmia Alliance suggests taking your resting pulse when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed.

When should I seek advice?

  • If your pulse seems to be racing some or most of the time and you are feeling unwell.
  • If your pulse seems to be slow some or most of the time and you are feeling unwell.
  • If your pulse feels irregular (“jumping around”), even if you do not feel unwell.

Everyone is different. Many people may have pulse rates over 100 beats/min (bpm) and less than 60 bpm. If you have a persistent heart rate above 120 bpm or below 40 bpm, visit your local clinic.

The content on this page was last updated on 1 June 2018