Difference Between Pulse & Blood Pressure

The blood pressure and pulse are two medical measurements routinely used to determine the state of a person's health. Each remains intimately connected to the heart, the most vital organ of the body. Regular monitoring and preventive strategies can help achieve good heart health.

A doctor taking a patient's pulse and blood pressure. Credit: AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images

The Blood Pressure

The blood pressure and pulse are two very different measurements, but they have the heart as their common denominator. The blood pressure consists of the pressure the blood exudes on the walls of the arteries as it flows through the body. The two forces at work during this process--known commonly as "the readings," or as systolic and diastolic--make up the blood pressure reading. The systolic reading represents the highest reading, an action that records the pressure when the heart contracts while moving blood through the body. It is generally listed first. The diastolic reading, listed second, represents the lower reading and defines the pressure during the relaxation phase of a heartbeat.

The Pulse

The pulse, a somewhat simpler measurement, represents the actual number of heartbeats per minute. The health care provider counts heartbeats over the course of one minute while a person remains in a resting state. Causes of a slow or weak pulse, known as bradycardia, include electrolyte imbalances, heart muscle damage or hypertension. By contrast, a faster-than-normal pulse rate, known as tachycardia, indicates interruptions in the heart's electrical impulses.

Measurement of Blood Pressure and Pulse

The difference in the measurements lies in what a person measures: pressure against arteries versus actual heartbeats counted. To measure the blood pressure, a person uses a monitor known as a sphygmomanometer and a stethoscope. The cuff wraps snugly around the upper arm with the rubber tubing directly over the bend of the elbow where the main arteries are. Once secured, inflate the cuff until the needle reaches the 180 to 200 range. After placing the stethoscope head over the arteries, gradually release pressure while watching the dial and begin to listen carefully. Listening for the rhythm of the first heart's beat and the last, the number noted at the sound of the first heartbeat represents the systolic; the number noted at the sound of the last beat in a rhythm represents the diastolic numbers of the blood pressure reading. Measuring the pulse involves gentle pressure using the artery in the wrist by placing the first two fingers on the thumb joint and following down to the inner wrist to feel the heartbeat. Counting beats for 30 seconds and multiplying by two gives the beats per minute. The most common sites for measuring the pulse aside from the wrist are found in the groin, back of the knees, neck, temple and the top of the foot.

Normal Blood Pressure and Pulse Readings

Blood pressure readings in the range of 120/80 or less remain a normal consideration for adults, while a reading from 120 to 139 over 80 to 89 may warrant a diagnosis as "pre-hypertensive" and would require monitoring. A definitive diagnosis of hypertension would occur with consistent readings above 140/90. A normal pulse rate varies according to age of the individual. Normal heartbeats, for example, would be 60 for infants; 70 to 120 for children age 1 to 10; 60 to 100 for children older than 10 to adulthood; and 40 to 60 for athletes. Low pulse rates, a recognized variable among athletes, remains a side effect of the physical training and body fitness. A definite link exists between the metabolism of infants and small children in regard to the increased heart rate observed in those under the age of 10; this rate gradually slows to a more sedate pace as one grows older. Interestingly enough, although there remains a link between the heart and pulse and blood pressure, an increase in one does not automatically indicate an increase in the other. For instance, while a high pulse rate may indicate infection, the blood pressure may remain within a normal limit.

Importance of the Blood Pressure and Pulse

Monitoring of the blood pressure and pulse remain convenient and easy ways to assess the heart's activity. Many diseases can affect the blood pressure; abnormal blood pressure readings signify impending medical issues. A high pulse rate may indicate the presence of infection, while a low rate may indicate a lack of adequate cardiac function. When taking the pulse, if the beats feel "hard," this can signify arterial blockage due to high cholesterol or diabetes. Regular medical check-ups with a qualified physician remain the best method of prevention and early detection.

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