What Is the Location of the Popliteal Pulse?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 15, 2023
3 min read

Your popliteal pulse is one of several places on your body where you can easily check your heart rate. The location of the popliteal pulse is the soft spots behind your knees. 

Your popliteal pulse can help you monitor your health in several ways. Doctors might use it to help them diagnose and treat health problems and injuries.

Your popliteal pulse is caused by your heartbeat. Your heart pumps blood through your body and your arteries pulse as your blood flows through them. The popliteal pulse is named after your popliteal artery. This is an important blood vessel that carries blood down through your leg to your feet.

Most arteries are hard to find because they’re deep inside your body. But your popliteal artery is easy to find and feel when you know where to look. It has to run through your knee without getting pinched. 

So the location of your popliteal pulse is behind your knee. This keeps the artery out of the way of the bones and tendons in the soft tissue.

It’s easy to check your popliteal pulse yourself. Simply do the following:

  • Sit or lie down on your bed, couch, or floor.
  • ‌Bend your leg a little, but not enough that your foot is flat on the floor.
  • ‌Wrap your hand around your knee so your fingers are against the soft spot in the back of your knee.
  • ‌Slowly press your fingers into this soft spot until you can feel your pulse. It should feel like a steady pulse once or twice per second. This is your popliteal pulse.

‌How hard you need to press to find your pulse depends on many things. You may have to press harder to find it if you have health conditions that make your pulse weak or if you have a lot of muscle or fat tissue in your legs. You can also check your pulse in your neck or wrist to know what rhythm you’re looking for.

Your doctor will usually check your pulse with your wrist (your radial pulse) or your neck (your carotid pulse). These are easier to find and less likely to be blocked by your clothing. Sometimes your doctor will need to check the pulse in your leg to see how well your blood is flowing there.

Your doctor might check your popliteal pulse when checking for the following conditions.

Knee or leg injuries. You might have injured your popliteal artery if you’ve had an injury like a dislocated knee. Checking the pulse there can help your doctor learn whether you’ve suffered a popliteal artery rupture. This rupture can be very dangerous if it’s not treated quickly.

Popliteal artery entrapment syndrome (PAES). Some people, especially young female athletes, can accidentally trap their popliteal artery. Young people whose legs are growing can develop calf muscles so large that they compress the popliteal artery and restrict blood flow. It may require surgery to fix.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD). Several conditions can hurt your arteries or cause them to narrow. They might keep your arteries from delivering enough blood to your legs. A weak popliteal pulse might be an early sign of these conditions.

Popliteal artery aneurysm. Your popliteal artery can develop weak spots like any other vein or artery in your body. A popliteal artery aneurysm will feel like a lump that pulses with your heartbeat. These aneurysms require medical treatment to prevent a ruptured artery.

Your popliteal pulse can be hard to find depending on things like your weight, how much water you drink, and how you’re sitting or standing. It’s not usually an emergency if you can’t find your popliteal pulse.

But a missing popliteal pulse is sometimes a sign of a bigger problem. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you can’t find your pulse and you notice these other symptoms:

  • ‌Tingling or burning feeling in your legs
  • ‌Numbness in your feet and legs
  • ‌Cramping in one or both legs when you walk
  • ‌A difference in temperature between your legs where one leg feels much colder to the touch than the other
  • ‌Unusual sensitivity to touch in either leg

‌These might be signs of a problem like a serious injury, a clot, or something else that’s keeping blood from getting to your leg. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible to avoid potential damage to your legs.