Background: Atrial fibrillation in the elderly is common and potentially life threatening. The classical sign of atrial fibrillation is an irregularly irregular pulse.
Objective: The objective of this research was to determine the accuracy of pulse palpation to detect atrial fibrillation.
Methods: We searched Medline, EMBASE, and the reference lists of review articles for studies that compared pulse palpation with the electrocardiogram (ECG) diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. Two reviewers independently assessed the search results to determine the eligibility of studies, extracted data, and assessed the quality of the studies.
Results: We identified 3 studies (2385 patients) that compared pulse palpation with ECG. The estimated sensitivity of pulse palpation ranged from 91% to 100%, while specificity ranged from 70% to 77%. Pooled sensitivity was 94% (95% confidence interval [CI], 84%-97%) and pooled specificity was 72% (95% CI, 69%-75%). The pooled positive likelihood ratio was 3.39, while the pooled negative likelihood ratio was 0.10.
Conclusions: Pulse palpation has a high sensitivity but relatively low specificity for atrial fibrillation. It is therefore useful for ruling out atrial fibrillation. It may also be a useful screen to apply opportunistically for previously undetected atrial fibrillation. Assuming a prevalence of 3% for undetected atrial fibrillation in patients older than 65 years, and given the test's sensitivity and specificity, opportunistic pulse palpation in this age group would detect an irregular pulse in 30% of screened patients, requiring further testing with ECG. Among screened patients, 0.2% would have atrial fibrillation undetected with pulse palpation.