The popliteal pulse is one of the pulses you can detect in your body, specifically in the portion of your leg behind your knee. The pulse here is from blood flow to the popliteal artery, the vital blood supply to the lower leg.

Several medical conditions can affect blood flow to and from the popliteal pulse. For this reason, you or your doctor may need to be able to feel it.

Where is it?

Think of the arteries in your body like a road that has branches and changes names a few times, depending on where you are in the body. Drive down the road with us:

  • The aorta branches off the heart.
  • Then it turns into the abdominal aorta.
  • That branches into the right and left common iliac arteries right below the belly button.
  • Then it becomes the femoral artery in the upper thigh.
  • Finally, the popliteal artery is behind the kneecap.

The popliteal artery is the major supplier of oxygen-rich blood to the lower leg.

Just below your knee, the popliteal artery branches off into the anterior tibial artery and a branch that gives way to the posterior tibial and peroneal artery. The popliteal vein is next to the artery. It carries blood back to the heart.

In addition to helping keep blood flowing to your leg, the popliteal artery also supplies blood to important muscles in your leg, like your calf muscles and the lower part of your hamstring muscles.

How to find it

Popliteal Pulse
You can take your popliteal pulse by locating the popliteal artery, which you can feel behind your knee within the popliteal fossa. Illustration by Diego Sabogal

Now that you know where the popliteal artery is located, here’s how you can identify it:

  1. In a seated or lying position, slightly bend your leg at the knee, but not so bent that your foot is flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands around the front of your knee so your fingers are on the back portion of your knee.
  3. Find the fleshy middle portion of the back middle of your knee. Doctors call this the “popliteal fossa.” Others call it the “knee pit” for short.
  4. Press with increasing pressure until you feel a pulsation in the back of the knee. The pulsation will feel like a heartbeat, usually steady and even in nature. Sometimes you may have to press very deep into the popliteal fossa to feel the pulse. Some people have a lot of tissue on the back of their knees.
  5. Note if you feel any other masses or weakened areas of tissue, such as a potential aneurysm. Although these are rare, some people can feel these abnormalities.

You don’t necessarily need to be concerned if you can’t feel your popliteal pulse. In some people, the pulse is so deep it’s difficult to feel.

If you’re concerned about your pulses, talk to your doctor. They can attempt to identify the lower pulses in your leg, such as those at your ankle.

Your doctor may also use the equipment, such as a Doppler device, which detects the movement of blood by ultrasonic pulsations.

Pulse rate

Your pulse rate should feel the same throughout your body, including on your wrist, on the side of your neck, and in your feet.

A person’s normal pulse rate can vary. Most experts consider a normal pulse to be between 60 and 100 beats per minute.

However, some people have a pulse that’s slightly lower due to medications they take or other variations in their heart’s rhythm.

You may need to seek medical attention if your pulse rate is:

  • very low (less than 40 beats per minute)
  • very high (greater than 100 beats per minute)
  • irregular (doesn’t beat at an even rate and rhythm)

Why would a doctor check your pulse here?

A doctor might check for a popliteal pulse to evaluate how well blood is flowing to the lower leg. Some of the conditions where a doctor may check the popliteal pulse include:

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD occurs when damage or narrowing of the arteries affects blood flow to the lower legs.
  • Popliteal artery aneurysm. When you experience weakness in the popliteal artery, it can cause a pulsatile mass you can often feel.
  • Popliteal artery entrapment syndrome (PAES). This condition commonly affects young female athletes, often due to muscle hypertrophy (enlarged calf muscles). The condition causes numbness and cramping of the leg muscles. The condition may require surgical correction in some cases.
  • Trauma to the knee or leg. Sometimes an injury to the leg, such as a dislocated knee, can affect blood flow to the popliteal artery. Research estimates between 4 and 20 percent of knee dislocations result in popliteal artery rupture.

These are just some of the major examples of why a doctor may check a person’s popliteal pulse.

When to see a doctor

You may need to seek medical attention if you have a history of problems with blood flow to your legs and can’t feel your popliteal pulse as usual. Some other symptoms that could indicate impaired blood flow include:

  • cramping in one or both legs when walking
  • extreme sensitivity to touch in the legs
  • numbness in the feet and legs
  • one leg feeling cold to the touch when compared to the other
  • tingling or burning sensations in the legs

These symptoms can all indicate impaired blood flow from peripheral artery disease or an acute medical condition, such as a blood clot in the leg.

The bottom line

The popliteal artery is important to give blood flow to the lower legs and muscles surrounding the knee.

If you have problems with blood flow to one or both legs, regularly checking your popliteal pulse may help you monitor your conditions. Paying attention to additional symptoms, like lower leg tingling and numbness, may also help.

If you have symptoms you’re worried about, see your doctor. Seek immediate medical attention if you’re in extreme pain.