It may reveal possible heart disease or some other hidden problem

In modern medicine, the most important diagnostic tools are increasingly high-tech, such as computed tomography (CT) scans and sophisticated genetic testing.

An underutilized method for diagnosing illness: In Chinese Medicine (CM), the 5,000-year-old system of natural healing, the most important diagnostic tool is taking the patient’s pulse. Healers in other ancient cultures — India, Persia and Egypt, for example — also use pulse diagnosis.


According to CM, a normal pulse has several detectable features including a consistent rhythm (regularity)… a rate (fast or slow) that is consistent with the person’s age (a child’s pulse is usually faster than an adult’s, for example)… and qualities (such as strength or intensity) that are stable over time.

To a practitioner trained in pulse diagnosis, there are many possible deviations from a normal pulse.* The practitioner checks the pulse at 40 different positions on the radial (main) artery on the wrist. Each site represents the functioning of specific organs, such as the brain, heart, lungs, liver, stomach, kidneys and intestinal tract.

Learning to take a pulse in CM involves far more than counting beats per minute. A comprehensive Chinese pulse examination typically takes 15 to 45 minutes longer than the pulse check done by a Western medicine practitioner. But even for a layperson, being aware of subtleties in your own pulse may reveal significant facts about your health.

Important: The following pulse characteristics and associated health conditions are general guidelines and should not be used for self-diagnosis. A CM pulse diagnosis practitioner does not consider one pulse characteristic alone, but instead evaluates the findings for multiple pulse sites when assessing the health of a patient.

Learning about YOUR PULSE

To become familiar with your pulse, put three fingers (index, middle and ring) of the opposite hand along the radial artery in the wrist (where the most accessible and distinct pulse is located). For one minute, count the beats using a watch. For another minute or two, feel the quality of the pulse (see descriptions that follow).

Important: Before taking your pulse, avoid factors that can affect it — for example, take it at least 90 minutes after a large meal (especially one high in fat)… a few hours after drinking coffee or tea… and an hour or two after exercise.

Also, avoid taking it when you are very tired, hungry or upset. Before beginning, sit quietly for five minutes. See a doctor if any of the following characteristics are present…

Irregular rhythm or rate. A pulse that misses beats or speeds up or slows down may signal a potentially serious illness, such as heart disease.

Fast. A pulse rate that is consistently 90 beats per minute or higher at rest — especially one that is consistently above 100 — could be a sign of imbalance, such as a heart problem or hidden infection.

You should be able to feel the pulse by pressing down gently. If you must press down hard to find it, your qi (or life force) is probably low — according to CM, this may make you vulnerable to a serious illness in the near future. See your medical doctor or a holistic health practitioner for advice on lifestyle changes that may help restore your energy, such as getting more sleep.

Too strong. A pulse that is pounding particularly hard may indicate a variety of conditions, such as high blood pressure or anxiety.


Many health experts recommend regular, aerobic exercise such as running as a way to produce a resting pulse rate under 60 beats per minute — believing that a slow pulse is a sign of a well-conditioned, healthy heart.

Surprising: CM has a different perspective — a “slow” pulse means a lack of force and is a sign of deficient circulation of heart qi, making the body more susceptible to disease, particularly arthritis, cancer, circulatory disorders, anxiety and panic, sleep disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome.

The circulatory system is crucial to good health because it carries essential nutrients to every cell in the body and removes cellular waste products.

The CM perspective: A runner or other intense exerciser may become addicted to a heightened feeling of aliveness from increased circulation but over time must run farther and farther (or exercise harder and harder) to achieve the same experience. Every time the person runs too far or exercises too hard, he depletes heart qi — and becomes weaker and weaker. Gradually, he/she becomes easily fatigued and tired and has muscle and joint pain, insomnia and mood swings.

Example: The tennis player Björn Borg reduced his pulse rate to 29 beats per minute — then collapsed and quit tennis at age 26.

Best: Walking generally is the safest aerobic activity.

The CM Way

The goal of Chinese Medicine (CM) is to balance “qi” (pronounced “chee,” the universal energy or life force that flows throughout the body). A person with consistently balanced qi — adequate amounts moving in predictable, rhythmic patterns — is generally healthy and happy. If qi is insufficient or blocked, disease and sadness will likely result.

An experienced practitioner of CM pays close attention to many features of the individual to determine his/her state of qi. In addition to touching the wrist and feeling the patient’s pulse, the practitioner may look at the person’s tongue (shape, color and coating)…and inquire about his lifestyle, including diet and sleep.

Primarily a preventive discipline, especially through pulse diagnosis, CM detects disturbances in the qi at the earliest possible stage — ideally, before disease develops — and restores balance through such methods as a whole-food diet, gentle exercise, acupuncture and herbal formulations.

*To find a practitioner of pulse diagnosis, consult the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine,, or the Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine,, 800-606-6685, and click on the link “Alumni” under “The Students.”