A physical examination is an evaluation of the body and its functions using inspection, palpation (feeling with the hands), percussion (tapping with the fingers), and auscultation (listening). A complete health assessment also includes gathering information about a person's medical history and lifestyle, doing laboratory tests, and screening for disease.
The annual physical examination has been replaced by the periodic health examination. How often this is done depends on the patient's age, sex, and risk factors for disease. The United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) has developed guidelines for preventive health examinations that health care professionals widely follow. Organizations that promote detection and prevention of specific diseases, like the American Cancer Society, generally recommend more intensive or frequent examinations.
A comprehensive physical examination provides an opportunity for the health care professional to obtain baseline information about the patient for futureuse, and to establish a relationship before problems happen. It provides an opportunity to answer questions and teach good health practices. Detecting a problem in its early stages can have good long-term results.
A complete physical examination usually starts at the head and proceeds all the way to the toes. However, the exact procedure will vary according to the needs of the patient and the preferences of the examiner. An average examination takes about 30 minutes. The cost of the examination will depend on the charge for the professional's time and any tests that are done. Most health plans cover routine physical examinations including some tests.
First, the examiner will observe the patient's appearance, general health, and behavior, along with measuring height and weight. The vital signs includingpulse, breathing rate, body temperature, and blood pressure are recorded.
With the patient sitting up, the following systems are reviewed:
- Skin.The exposed areas of the skin are observed; the size and shape of any lesions are noted.
- Head. The hair, scalp, skull, and face are examined.
- Eyes. The external structures are observed. The internal structures canbe observed using an ophthalmoscope (a lighted instrument) in a darkened room.
- Ears. The external structures are inspected. A lighted instrument called an otoscope may be used to inspect internal structures.
- Nose and sinuses. The external nose is examined. The nasal mucosa and internal structures can be observed with the use of a penlight and a nasal speculum.
- Mouth and pharynx. The lips, gums, teeth, roof of the mouth, tongue, and pharynx are inspected.
- Neck. The lymph nodes on both sides of the neckand the thyroid gland are palpated (examined by feeling with the fingers).
- Back. The spine and muscles of the back are palpated and checked for tenderness. The upper back, where the lungs are located, is palpated on the right and left sides and a stethoscope is used to listen for breath sounds.
- Breasts and armpits. A woman's breasts are inspected with the arms relaxed and then raised. In both men and women, the lymph nodes in the armpits arefelt with the examiner's hands.While the patient is still sitting, movementof the joints in the hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and jaw can be checked.
Then while the patient is lying down on the examining table, the examinationincludes:
- Breasts. The breasts are palpated and inspected for lumps.
- Front of chest and lungs. The area is inspected with the fingers, using palpation and percussion. A stethoscope is used to listen to the internal breath sounds.
The head should be slightly raised for:
- Heart. A stethoscope is used to listen to the heart's rate and rhythm.The blood vessels in the neck are observed and palpated.
The patient should lie flat for:
- Abdomen. Light and deep palpation isused on the abdomen to feel the outlines of internal organs including the liver, spleen, kidneys, and aorta, a large blood vessel.
- Rectum and anus. With the patient lying on the left side, the outside areas are observed. Aninternal digital examination (using a finger), is usually done if the patient is over 40 years old. In men, the prostate gland is also palpated.
- Reproductive organs. The external sex organs are inspected and the area is examined for hernias. In men, the scrotum is palpated. In women, a pelvic examination is done using a speculum and a Papanicolaou test (PAP test) maybe taken.
- Legs. With the patient lying flat, the legs are inspectedfor swelling, and pulses in the knee, thigh, and foot area are found. The groin area is palpated for the presence of lymph nodes. The joints and muscles are observed.
- Musculoskeletel system. With the patient standing, the straightness of the spine and the alignment of the legs and feet is noted.
- Blood vessels. The presence of any abnormally enlarged veins (varicose), usually in the legs, is noted.
In addition to evaluating the patient's alertness and mental ability during the initial conversation, additional inspection of the nervous system may be indicated:
- Neurologic screen. The patient's ability to take a few steps, hop, and do deep knee bends is observed. The strength of the hand grip isfelt. With the patient sitting down, the reflexes in the knees and feet can be tested with a small hammer. The sense of touch in the hands and feet can beevaluated by testing reaction to pain and vibration.
- Sometimes additional time is spent examining the 12 nerves in the head (cranial) that are connected directly to the brain. They control the sense of smell, strength of muscles in the head, reflexes in the eye, facial movements, gag reflex, and muscles in the jaw. General muscle tone and coordination, and the reaction of the abdominal area to stimulants like pain, temperature, and touch would alsobe evaluated.
Before visiting the health care professional, the patient should write down important facts and dates about his or her own medical history, as well as those of family members. He or she should have a list of all medications with their doses or bring the actual bottles of medicine along. If there are specific concerns about anything, writing them down is a good idea.
Before the physical examination begins, the bladder should be emptied, and aurine specimen can be collected in a small container. For some blood tests, the patient may be told ahead of time not to eat or drink after midnight.
The patient usually removes all clothing and puts on a loose-fitting hospitalgown. An additional sheet is provided to keep the patient covered and comfortable during the examination.
Once the physical examination has been completed, the patient and the examiner should review what laboratory tests have been ordered and how the results will be shared with the patient. The medical professional should discuss any recommendations for treatment and follow-up visits. Special instructions should be put in writing. This is also an opportunity for the patient to ask any remaining questions about his or her own health concerns.
Normal results of a physical examination correspond to the healthy appearanceand normal functioning of the body. For example, appropriate reflexes will be present, no suspicious lumps or lesions will be found, and vital signs willbe normal.
Abnormal results of a physical examination include any findings that indicated the presence of a disorder, disease, or underlying condition. For example,the presence of lumps or lesions, fever, muscle weakness or lack of tone, poor reflex response, heart arrhythmia, or swelling of lymph nodes will point toa possible health problem.