Fingers on the pulse: Irish Heart launches new campaign about detecting irregular heart rates

The charity Irish Heart launches an awareness campaign this weekend to encourage people to check their pulse as a means of detecting irregular heart rate, writes Áilín Quinlan

Pictures: Dan Linehan, Liam Burke

IT’S not rocket science, but it could save your life. Placing two fingers of one hand on the
upturned wrist of the other twice a day to check your pulse could save you from stroke, heart failure, or even dementia.

Simple, isn’t it? But how many of us actually bother to do it? According to Irish Heart, the national charity fighting to stop people dying prematurely from heart disease and stroke, more than 40,000 adults aged over the age of 50 already have atrial fibrillation (AF), Ireland’s most common sustained cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

Many of them don’t even know it, yet AF carries a five-fold greater risk of stroke (in fact it’s responsible for one third of the 8,500 strokes that occur annually in this country) and
increases the risk of dementia and heart failure.

This Sunday, October 1, the charity launches a month-long awareness campaign to encourage us all to learn how to “feel the pulse” twice a day for two weeks, to detect irregular heart rate and prevent stroke. Members of the public can also sign up for free text message reminders to take their pulse twice a day for two weeks.

“It’s very common as you get older, for example, one in four people over the age of 50 are at risk of developing it,” says Dr Angie Brown, consultant cardiologist and medical director of Irish Heart, who says AF can be simply described as “an extremely irregular heartbeat”.

“The symptoms can be non- specific,” she says — dizziness, tiredness, breathlessness, palpitations, chest pain — or you may experience no symptoms at all.

“AF occurs as a result of age, general wear and tear,” she says, adding that conditions such as
obesity and high blood pressure increase the risk, along with high levels of alcohol consumption or other forms of heart disease.

“We don’t really know the full extent of the prevalence of this condition because a lot of people don’t have symptoms — it can come and go.”

The good news is that if your doctor detects AF, it can be effectively treated with medication. The problem is, according to Dr Brown, that at least 26% of people with AF are unaware of the fact that they have the condition.


Dr Christine McCreary, below left, at Cork University Dental School

Take consultant dentist Dr Christine McCreary, 57, who thought she was merely suffering symptoms of menopause, until one night she woke up unable to breathe.

Looking back now, says the mother-of-three, she had had symptoms of AF such as fatigue and breathlessness for some time before the attack, but had attributed them to menopause. Even though Christine is an experienced medic, she never considered atrial fibrillation.

Four days before the attack, while swimming, she experienced what she believed at the time was an asthma attack or, she decided afterwards, the inhalation of salt water. Everything came to a peak in August 2015 when Christine was attending the Coastal Rowing Championships in Waterville, Co Kerry, in which her daughter was participating.

That night she woke up unable to breathe: “I sat up and tried to breathe, slowly and calmly. It was very frightening. I thought I was having a heart attack,” recalls Christine, a resident of the West Cork village of Kilbrittain. She came very close to calling an ambulance, but the attack gradually faded away.

The next day she saw a doctor, who carried out an electrocardiogram (ECG), which is a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of the heart.

“I was sent to hospital,” she recalls. Test showed that Christine, who is attached to the Cork Dental School, had an enlarged heart and that she had had atrial fibrillation for what they told her was “a significant amount of time”.

“The heart muscle was damaged; the symptoms I had been experiencing were basically an acute form of heart fibrillation and my lungs had fluid in them, which is why I was breathless. I was put on medication to get my heartbeat back in rhythm, and released from hospital.”

She stayed on the medication for about a month, she says, after which doctors made a number of attempts to ‘shock’ her heart back into the correct rhythm. “They didn’t work,” she recalls. Next they tried a cardia-ablation where doctors literally ‘fry’ part of the heart muscle in an attempt to get the heart beating normally.

“That didn’t work the first time or the second time,” Christine recalls. One last attempt at shocking her heart back into rhythm worked.

“I have been very well since, apart from an episode last February when I went into atrial fibrillation. I was put on new medication and reverted into the proper rhythm,” she says. Her message: “I would urge everyone to take your pulse and know what normal is so that if your pulse becomes irregular you’ll pick it up.”


Heart attack survivor Peter Thornton with his biscuit tins full of medications.

Peter Thornton, 54, from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, had never felt the cold in his life until the winter of 2013, when everything changed.

First, Peter, who was at that stage a successful accountant, felt the chill of low temperatures. Then in early 2014, his sleeping pattern suddenly became severely disrupted. Instead of falling asleep quickly as usual, Peter found himself tossing and turning for hours before gradually going to sleep — then suddenly jolting awake again, covered in perspiration. He began to suffer fatigue and shortness of breath. His appetite disappeared.

By the time his annual three-week summer holiday came round, he felt so tired that he couldn’t enjoy his hobbies of walking and cycling.

In the last week of his holidays he got a very bad pain in his upper stomach which he attributed to indigestion. A few days later, he experienced a severe pain in his heart. “I knew I was having a heart attack,” he recalls. Yet, inexplicably, he didn’t go to the doctor for several days. When he did go, an ECG was carried out, and Peter was sent to hospital, where tests showed his heart was pumping at just 20% of capacity. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and put on blood-thinning medication.

That October, doctors tried to shock his heart back into the normal rhythm. It didn’t work. He was taken off the blood-thinning medication, fitted with an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) and once again began taking blood-thinning medication. However, he experienced internal bleeding and had surgery to drain his chest cavity. He spent six weeks recovering, and was later diagnosed with type two diabetes. Last February Peter’s heart “went through the roof” he says, but the defibrillator kicked in and brought his beat back to normal.

His medication was changed, but then came another shock. In March this year he was brought to hospital with suspected renal failure. The treatment was successful but, says Peter, he can no longer work as a result of his condition. He has had to be extremely vigilant and undergo regular blood tests.

His advice: “Do the pulse check — it’s a very good indication of irregular heartbeat. The other thing is, get a check-up with your doctor once a year.”

  • Feel The Pulse is the message from the Irish Heart Foundation, supported by Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb. For more details or to sign up for free text message reminders to take your pulse twice a day for two weeks, visit (Text PULSE to 50100 to register). If you are concerned about AF, talk an Irish Heart nurse in confidence on Freephone 1800 25 25 50.


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