Do you remember a column that dealt with the “lowly” straight pin as an important medical device?

The pin is not the only device that falls into that category. In fact, I will bet that the vast majority of you own a different medical device but one that is no less important to your health. Do you wear a watch or carry some type of timepiece? Well, that is it.

There are a variety of important tests that you might need to help make your diagnosis and to monitor your treatment that require knowing the time.

A common test, used almost every time you visit your doctor, is your pulse. Every time your heart contracts or beats, it creates an impulse along your arteries. Having a too rapid heartbeat can result from a variety of medical problems.

As with most activities in your body and in laboratory tests, there is no one “normal” rate of your pulse. The rate can depend on your age, physical fitness and a variety of illnesses. It can vary from around 60 to 100 and still be OK.

But, if you’re normal rate is 60 and it goes to 90, while the number is still “normal” in general, in that case it could mean trouble. All the findings your provider identifies have to be put into perspective by looking at them all together to create an accurate picture of your health status.

Your pulse can be tested by simply counting how fast you heart is beating, usually reported in “beats per minute.” All you have to do is find a place to put your fingertips to do the counting.

You could do it with a stethoscope at your heart or with a finger on your neck where the arteries are going to your head or at your wrist, groin, even in your feet.

In most cases, the wrist is easily available and the usual place to check. But, you need a watch to count the pulse over time.

How often should you take a breath?

We don’t think much about our breathing, we just do it under normal conditions. If you have to consciously think to take a breath, it can mean a significant medical problem exists.

The usual range for breathing is also measured against time. In a normal adult it can vary from 15 to 20 times a minute. It can also vary with age, physical fitness and a variety of medical problems.

While you can easily measure your own pulse, it is more difficult to measure your own respirations because just thinking about the breathing and measuring process can change it.

Get someone to watch you as you are resting comfortably and time your breaths. It is better to time it for two minutes, since most people don’t breathe too rapidly, and accuracy increases with length of the time it is measured. But, it is still reported by the minute.

Having trouble hearing? A watch can help here. Just place the watch next to your ear canal and determine if you can hear it. Now, please remember, it has to be the kind of watch that “ticks,” not the battery driven kind that glides from second to second silently.

So, the bottom line is that a timepiece (with a second hand) is an important medical device and should be considered as such. But please don’t try to claim your brand new Rolex as a medical deduction on your income tax without consulting your accountant.

Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith professor of surgery at University of Texas Medical Branch Division of Urology. Write him at

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