Physical Examination

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 10, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Physical Examination?

A physical examination is a routine test your doctor performs to check your overall health. It is also known as a wellness check.

The Purpose of an Annual Physical Exam

A physical examination helps your doctor determine the general status of your health. It is also gives you a chance to talk to him or her about ongoing pain or symptoms that you are experiencing, or any other health concerns you might have.

A physical examination is recommended at least once a year, especially in people over the age of 50. According to the National Institutes of Health, these exams are used to:

  • check for possible diseases, so they can be treated early
  • identify any issues that may become medical concerns in the future
  • update any necessary immunizations
  • ensure that you are maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine
  • build a relationship with your doctor

These exams are also a good way to check for high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels (NIH, 2012). Often, these levels will be high and you will not show any signs or symptoms. Regular screening allows your doctor to treat these conditions before they become severe.

Your doctor may also perform a physical exam before a surgery or beginning your treatment for a medical condition.

How to Prepare for a Physical Examination

Proper preparation for your physical examination can help you get the most out of your time with your doctor. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you should gather the following paperwork before your physical examination:

  • list of current medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs and any herbal supplements
  • list of any symptoms or pain you are experiencing
  • results from any recent or relevant tests
  • medical and surgical history
  • names and contact information for other doctors you may have seen recently
  • any additional questions you would like answered (Cleveland Clinic, 2012)

You may want to dress in comfortable clothing and avoid any excess jewelry, makeup, or other things that would prevent your doctor from fully examining your body.

How a Physical Examination Is Performed

Before meeting with your doctor, a nurse will ask you a series of questions regarding your medical history—including any allergies, surgeries, or symptoms you might have.

Typically, your doctor will begin the exam by inspecting your body for any unusual marks or growths. You may sit or stand during this.

Next, he or she may have you lie down and will feel your abdomen and other parts of your body. When doing this, your doctor is inspecting the consistency, location, size, tenderness, and texture of your individual organs.

Your doctor will use a stethoscope—the listening device doctors typically keep around their necks—to listen to various parts of your body. This could include listening while you take deep breaths and listening to your intestines.

Your doctor will also use a technique known as “percussion,” tapping around the body like it was a drum. This helps your doctor discover fluid in areas where it should not be, as well as locate the borders, consistency and size of organs.

During the exam, your doctor will also check your height, weight, and pulse. Be sure to communicate with your doctor if you have any concerns throughout the exam.

Following Up After a Physical Examination

After the appointment, you are free to go about your day. Depending on what your doctor finds, you may need other tests or screenings at a later date.

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