Home » Cardiology » How pulse checks could detect an irregular heartbeat

Dr Belinda Sandler

Associate Director and Medical Lead, BMS Cardiovascular UK & Ireland


People with a personal or family history of heart conditions have been urged to check their pulse to help identify whether they may be suffering from atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of irregular heart rhythm disorder.1 While many people with AF experience symptoms, some people do not, meaning that many may not even be aware they have it.1

It is also known to increase the risk of stroke by five times2 and is associated with heart failure, but early detection is likely to control symptoms and help avoid more serious complications from developing.3,4

Irregular heartbeat

Around 3% of the population have AF5 – a condition which can show minimal or no symptoms. However, people may experience symptoms such as heart palpitations, where the heart feels like it is fluttering or beating irregularly, as well as tiredness, shortness of breath, feeling faint or chest pain.6

Despite this, large sectors of the population have limited understanding of AF and its potential consequences if it remains undiagnosed and is not managed.

A recent study of 2,100 participants, by the Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS)/Pfizer Alliance, identified that almost 20% of people with a personal, or familial risk of heart disease do not know how to check their pulse,7 which isregarded as the first step in detecting AF symptoms.8

Reducing risk

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the UK.9 However, of those who responded to the survey, just over half knew that an irregular heart rhythm could lead to a stroke.7

Dr Belinda Sandler, Associate Director and Medical Lead, BMS Cardiovascular UK & Ireland, says: “We urge people with a personal or family history of a heart condition to check their pulse or, if unsure how, to speak to their GP.

“If more people actively check their pulse, which can take as little as 30 seconds, this can aid early diagnosis and management of the condition to help prevent stroke.”

Heart health

The BMS/Pfizer Alliance study surveyed more than 2,000 people aged 16-75 to assess the public awareness and understanding of irregular heart rhythm and gain insights on the impact and understanding of heart health in the UK.

While early detection is likely to improve patient outcomes3, some people with AF may experience minimal or no symptoms at all and the British Heart Foundation suggests that as many as 300,000 people are living with undiagnosed AF in the UK.10

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there was a significant drop in attendance at hospitals and GPs, raising fears that even more people with heart conditions such as AF were remaining undiagnosed.11

Remote monitoring

Dr Sandler adds: “Most commonly, atrial fibrillation is diagnosed at routine doctors’ appointments. However, during March 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 30% drop in attendance was observed in England.11

“If we can counter the number of potentially missed diagnoses during the pandemic by equipping the general public with the correct knowledge to monitor their heart health, we can help prevent serious cardiovascular complications from arising.”

While attendance at health facilities fell during the pandemic, it did lead to greater use of telemedicine, which enables video and phone appointments between patients and their healthcare practitioner, and remote patient monitoring devices for a range of chronic conditions.12

Recognising the signs and symptoms of AF is critical in preventing heart-related complications. It is important that those with an increased risk are taking the time to pulse check as, only through diagnosis, can the condition be managed and monitored efficiently.

Visit the Arrhythmia Alliance website for more guidance on pulse checking.

BMS job code: CV-GB-2200040 | Pfizer job code: PP-INT-GBR-0546 | February 2022

[1] NHS. Overview. Atrial Fibrillation. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atrial-fibrillation/ [last accessed February 2022]
[2] Wolf PA, et al. Atrial fibrillation as an independent risk factor for stroke: the Framingham Study. Stroke. 1991;22:983-8
[3] Sekelj S, et al. Detecting undiagnosed atrial fibrillation in UK primary care: Validation of a machine learning prediction algorithm in a retrospective cohort study. Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2020;28(6):1-9
[4] Benito L, et al. EARLY: a pilot study on early diagnosis of atrial fibrillation in a primary healthcare centre. EP Europace. 2015;17(11):1688-1693
[5] Adderley NJ, et al. Prevalence and treatment of atrial fibrillation in UK general practice from 2000 to 2016. Heart. 2019;105(1):1-22
[6] NHS. Symptoms. Atrial fibrillation. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atrial-fibrillation/symptoms/ [last accessed February 2022]
[7] BMS. Data on File 2021: CVD Awareness Research in the UK
[8] NHS. Diagnosis. Atrial Fibrillation. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atrial-fibrillation/diagnosis/ [last accessed February 2022]
[9] Brain Research UK. Neurological conditions / Stroke. Available at: https://www.brainresearchuk.org.uk/neurological-conditions/stroke [last accessed February 2022]
[10] British Heart Foundation. Atrial Fibrillation: finding the missing 300,000. Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/for-professionals/healthcare-professionals/news-and-analysis/analysis/atrial-fibrillation-finding-the-missing-300000 [last accessed February 2022]
[11] NHS Digital. Appointments in General Practice – March 2020. Available at: https://files.digital.nhs.uk/F5/98B3B6/GP_APPT_Publication_March_2020.xlsx [last accessed February 2022]
[12] Nuffield Trust. The impact of Covid-19 on the use of digital technology in the NHS– Briefing August 2020. Available at: https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/files/2020-08/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-use-of-digital-technology-in-the-nhs-web-2.pdf [last accessed February 2022]

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