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Weak Or Absent Pulse

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.

Identifying a Weak or Absent Pulse

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 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.

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.

Related Symptoms

Other symptoms may be present with a weak or absent pulse. These symptoms include:

  • low blood pressure
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • rapid or irregular heart rate
  • shallow breathing
  • sweaty skin
  • chest pain
  • shooting pain in the arms and legs

What Causes a Weak or Absent Pulse?

The most common causes for a weak or absent pulse are cardiac arrest and shock. Cardiac arrest occurs when someone’s heart stops beating. Shock happens when someone’s body begins to shut down. This causes a weak pulse, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and unconsciousness. Shock can be caused by anything from dehydration to a heart attack.

How to Treat a Weak or Absent Pulse

Emergency Care

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 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 CPR for one minute. Then call 911.

If you’re trained in CPR and confident in your abilities, start with 30 chest compressions. Then check their airway and give them rescue breaths if needed. Continue CPR until there’s movement or until paramedics arrive.

If you’re not trained in CPR, you can do hands-only CPR. Give chest compressions at the rate of about 100 compressions per minute until the person moves or paramedics arrive.

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 2010, 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.

Follow-Up Care

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.

What Are the Future Health Complications?

You may have bruised or fractured ribs if you received CPR. If your breathing or heartbeat stopped for a significant amount of time, you may have organ damage. Organ damage can be caused by tissue death from lack of oxygen.

More serious complications may occur if you had no effective heartbeat and your pulse wasn’t restored quickly enough. These complications can include:

  • Coma, caused by lack of blood and oxygen to your brain, typically following cardiac arrest.
  • Shock, caused by insufficient blood pressure in your vital organs.
  • Death, caused by lack of circulation and oxygen to your heart muscle.

The Takeaway

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 you prevent any complications.

Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Feb 24, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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