Getting a Physical Examination

Written by Kimberly Holland
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 18, 2013

Getting a Physical Exam

An annual physical exam ensures wellness and good health. Some consider it a preventive step and a way to catch a more serious condition before it begins to cause problems. An annual physical can also monitor vitals like weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other markers.

What Does a Physical Exam Address?

Doctors use a physical exam to see how the body is performing. Depending on a patient’s personal health history, a doctor may choose to focus on certain areas of a physical exam. People with a family history of heart disease may receive additional blood pressure checks, blood tests, and cholesterol screenings. 

Based on test results, age, and personal health history, it is also an opportunity to discuss future prevention measures.

An average physical exam may include the following components:

  • Updated healthy history: a doctor may ask to be updated on new developments including job and relationships, as well as medications or supplements.
  • Vital sign checks: This includes taking a blood pressure reading, and checking heart rate and respiratory rate. At a minimum, blood pressure should be checked every two years.
  • Visual exam: your the doctor will review a patient’s appearance for signs of any potential conditions.
  • Physical exams: A thorough physical exam including checking the head and neck, abdominal area, hair, nails, and limbs. The doctor will also listen to the heart and lungs.
  • Laboratory tests: To complete the physical, the doctor may draw blood in order to run several laboratory tests. These can include a complete blood count and chemistry panel. This helps detect irregularities in the blood that might indicate a larger problem. They may request a lipid panel, or cholesterol test, if a patient has an increased risk of heart attack, heart disease, or stroke.

Screening tests might also be requested. These differ for women and men.

Women:

  • Mammogram: a mammogram is needed every two years between the ages of 50 and 74. A patient can request more or less frequent testing based on personal and family history of breast cancer.
  • Pap smear: Women should begin screening within three years of starting sexual activity or age 21 (whichever comes first) and screening at least every three years thereafter.
  • Cholesterol test: Women should begin regular cholesterol checks at age 45. Those with a history or genetic predisposition for diabetes or heart disease may need to begin cholesterol checks as early as age 20.
  • Osteoporosis screening: Bone density scans should begin around age 65.
  • Breast exam: At each physical, a breast exam can be used to check for abnormal lumps or signs of breast cancer.
  • Pelvic exam: While taking a sample for a Pap smear, the doctor may also perform a full pelvic exam. This includes examining the vagina, cervix, and vulva for signs of a sexually transmitted infection or other conditions.

Men:

  • Cholesterol test: Men are advised to begin regular cholesterol checks at age 35 and continue to have one every five years. Patients with a history or genetic predisposition to diabetes or heart disease may need to begin cholesterol checks as early as age 20.
  • Prostate cancer screening: Men may need prostate-specific antigen tests or digital rectal examinations.
  • Testicular exam: A doctor may wish to check each testicle for signs of a problem, including lumps, changes in size, and tenderness.

Both Men and Women

  • Colorectal cancer test: Begin tests for this cancer at age 50.
  • Depression: Many patients aren’t aware of their symptoms of depression because they are easily attributed to other things. However, a depression screening at each yearly check-up can check to see if symptoms are a result of depression.
  • Diabetes: People with a family history or risk factors for diabetes, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, should be screened for diabetes. Doctors may use the fasting blood sugar or the HbA1c test.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STI) screening: Based on personal sexual history, regular STI screenings during each annual physical exam may be suggested. 

Where and How Will the Test be Administered?

Most full physical exams are performed only once a year in a doctor’s office. When additional screenings or imaging tests are recommended, some may be completed at an imaging center or hospital. Blood test draws can be performed at the doctor’s office before samples are sent to a lab for analysis.

What Are the Risks of the Test?

Most portions of a physical exam carry no risks. Some mild discomfort and pain might occur during a blood test when the needle is inserted into the vein for blood withdrawal. A small bruise may also develop where the needle was inserted after it’s removed. This bruise should heal in a few days.

While the physical exam is considered by many to be a great way to develop an overall picture of a person’s health, some experts are not as convinced of its necessity. Some abnormal test results may cause unnecessary worry. It is important to speak with a doctor about physical exams. They may not require one each year.

Preparation

There is no need to prepare for a physical exam, unless a doctor requests a fast for a fasting blood test.

What Are the Desired Results?

The doctor may request a return visit to discuss test results. The physical exam is a chance for a frank discussion about health, habits, and a patient’s future. Signs of potential problems can be tackled with a plan to treat them.

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