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Auscultation

What Is Auscultation?

Highlights

  1. Auscultation is the medical term for when your doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to the sounds inside your body.
  2. The lungs, abdomen, and heart are the key areas your doctor listens to during auscultation.
  3. Your doctor might suggest additional tests for a diagnosis depending on the sounds they hear.

Auscultation is the medical term for using a stethoscope to listen to the sounds inside of your body. This simple test poses no risks or side effects. During auscultation, the stethoscope allows your doctor to hear what’s happening inside of your body.

Abnormal sounds in these areas may indicate problems:

  • lungs
  • abdomen or bowels
  • heart
  • major blood vessels

Potential problems can include an irregular heartbeat in your heart, Crohn’s disease in your digestive tract, and phlegm or fluid buildup in your lungs.

Your doctor can also use as a machine called a Doppler ultrasound for auscultation. This machine uses sound waves that bounce off your internal organs to create images. This is also used to listen to your baby’s heartbeat if you’re pregnant.

How Is the Test Performed?

Your doctor places the stethoscope over your bare skin and listens to each area of your body. There are specific things your doctor will listen for in each area.

Heart

To hear your heart, your doctor listens to the four main regions where heart valve sounds are the loudest. Your doctor places the stethoscope on the areas of your chest above and slightly below your left breast. Some heart sounds are also best heard when you’re turned toward your left side. In your heart, your doctor listens for:

  • what your heart sounds like
  • how often each sound occurs
  • how loud the sound is

Abdomen

Your doctor listens to one or more regions of your abdomen separately to listen to your bowel sounds. They may hear swishing, gurgling, or nothing at all. Each sound informs your doctor about what’s happening in your intestines.

Lungs

When listening to your right and left lungs, your doctor compares one side with the other and compares the front of your chest with the back of your chest. Normal airflow sounds differently in airways that are blocked, narrowed, or filled with fluid. They’ll also listen for abnormal sounds such as wheezing.

How Are the Results Interpreted?

Auscultation can tell your doctor a lot about what’s going on inside of your body.

Heart

Traditional heart sounds are rhythmic. Variations can signal to your doctor that some areas may not be getting enough blood or have a leaky valve. Your doctor may order additional testing if they hear something unusual.

Abdomen

Your doctor should be able to hear abdominal sounds in all areas of your abdomen. Digested material may be stuck or your intestine may be twisted if an area of your abdomen has no sounds. Both possibilities can be very serious.

Lungs

Lung sounds can vary as much as heart sounds. Wheezes can be either high or low pitched and can indicate that mucus is preventing your lungs from expanding properly. One type of sound your doctor might listen for is called a rub. Rubs sound like two pieces of sandpaper being rubbed together and can indicate irritated surfaces around your lungs.

Palpation and Percussion

Other methods that you doctor can use to determine what’s happening inside of your body are palpation and percussion.

Palpation

Your doctor can perform a palpation simply by placing their fingers over one of your arteries to measure systolic pressure. Doctors usually look for a point of maximal impact (PMI) around your heart during palpation. If your doctor feels something abnormal like a large PMI or thrill, which is a vibration caused by the heart felt on the skin, they can identify possible issues related to your heart.

Percussion

Percussion involves your doctor tapping their fingers on various parts of your abdomen. Your doctor uses percussion to listen for sounds based on the organs or body parts underneath your skin. You’ll hear hollow sounds when your doctor taps body parts filled with air and much duller sounds when your doctor taps above an organ, such as your liver, or bodily fluids.

Percussion allows your doctor to identify many heart-related issues based on the relative dullness of sounds. An enlarged heart, which is called cardiomegaly, excessive fluid around the heart, which is called pericardial effusion, and conditions such as emphysema can all be identified using percussion.

Why Is Auscultation Important?

Auscultation gives your doctor a basic idea about what’s occurring in your body. Your heart, lungs, and organs underneath your abdomen can all be tested using auscultation and other similar methods. For example, if your doctor doesn’t identify a fist-sized area of dullness left of your sternum, you might be tested for emphysema. Also, if your doctor hears what’s called an “opening snap” when listening to your heart, you might be tested for mitral stenosis. You might need additional tests for a diagnosis depending on the sounds your doctor hears.

Auscultation and related methods are a good way for your doctor to know whether or not you need close medical attention. Auscultation can be an excellent preventive measure to help stop certain conditions from harming you. Ask your doctor to perform these procedures on you whenever you have a physical exam.

You asked, we answered

  • Can I perform auscultation on myself at home? If so, what are the best ways to do this effectively and accurately?- Anonymous
  • In general, auscultation should only be done by a trained medical professional, such as a doctor, nurse, EMT, or medic. The reason for this is because the nuances of performing an accurate stethoscope auscultation are quite complicated. When listening to the heart, lungs, or stomach, the untrained ear would not be able to differentiate between healthy, normal sounds versus sounds that may indicate a problem. 

    - Dr. Steven Kim

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