Physical Examination

Physical Exam: What Is It All About?

The purpose of a physical exam is to help diagnose disease or condition and provide appropriate treatment. A physical exam may include blood tests, x-rays, laboratory tests, imaging studies such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, and other procedures. These examinations are designed to determine your general health status; they do not always indicate whether you have a specific illness or disease.

A physical exam is usually done when you visit a doctor’s office or hospital emergency room for any reason. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, perform a physical examination, and order certain tests if necessary. If you have concerns about your health, it is best to get the results of these exams before making decisions about how to proceed with treatment.

What Are Some Common Questions You May Be Asked During a Physical Exam?

Your doctor may ask you some common questions during your physical exam. It is important that you are prepared with answers and this preparation may help ease your mind during the time of the physical examination. It is also important to note that not every question may be asked in every physical examination.

Some common questions include, but are not limited to:

1. How old were you when your father died?

2. Do you have any children?

3. Have you ever had any open wounds that have become infected?

4. Have you had any illnesses within the last 4-6 weeks?

5. Have you gotten any vaccines within the last 5 years?

6. What medications are you currently taking?

7. Where do you feel pain?

8. Do you have any tattoos or body piercings?

9. Are you experiencing any symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, fever or night sweats, shortness of breath, cough, etc?

10. Do you have any allergies?

11. What is your occupation?

12. Do you smoke or use any recreational drugs?

Tests That May Be Performed During a Physical Examination

Your physical examination may include a number of tests, which help your doctor determine the cause of your health concerns. The following are just some of the common tests that may be performed during a physical examination. Please note that not every person will have every test performed. These tests are used at the discretion of the doctor, based on your health concerns.

1. Questionnaire: All patients will go through a health questionnaire to assess risk factors that might impact their health, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, family history of disease, depression, and other general questions about medical history and current state of health.

2. Blood Pressure: The blood pressure cuff is placed around the arm and pumped up to determine your blood pressure.

Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80.

3. Pulse: A pulse can be taken at the wrist, neck, or groin.

The pulse can also be used to detect irregularities in the heartbeat (heart palpitations).

4. EKG or ECG: This stands for electrocardiogram, which measures electrical activity in the heart and detects abnormalities that may lead to heart disease.

5. Temperature: Measured by placing a thermometer in the ear, nose, or rectum.

A fever is an increase of at least one degree over a person’s normal body temperature.

6. Visual Exam: The eye doctor will test your eyes by having you read an eye chart.

He or she will shine a light into your eyes to look for physical problems with the retina and other parts of the eye.

7. Blood Work: A small amount of blood is drawn from your arm to be tested for signs of infection or disease.

8. Stool Test: A stool test can be used to test for infection, bleeding, or other problems with the digestive system.

9. Urinalysis: A urine sample will be used to detect signs of infection, diseases, or other problems with the urinary system.

10. Chest X-ray: An X-ray of the chest is used to detect pneumonia, lung cancer, heart disease, and other problems with the respiratory system.

11. Bone X-ray: An X-ray of the bones can reveal signs of fractures, arthritis, and other bone issues.

12. Mammogram: A mammogram is an X-ray of the mammary glands to detect tumors or signs of cancer.

13. Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to scan organs and structures beneath the skin. It can help detect many diseases and disorders, including heart disease, cancer, kidney stones, gallstones, and more.

14. ECG Rhythm Strip: An electrocardiogram records the electrical activity of the heart. By looking at the readings collected during a specific time interval, doctors can see if there are any arrhythmias or other problems with the heartbeat.

15. Eye Exam: A dilated eye exam can detect problems with the retina and other parts of the eye.

16. Neurological Exam: The neurologist will perform a series of tests to check your reflexes, sensation, strength, balance, and memory.

17. Chest Exam: The doctor will listen to your lungs and feel your chest and back to check for issues with the respiratory and cardiopulmonary systems.

18. Geriatric Exam: Elderly patients will receive a specialized physical exam to check for issues related to old age, which can include problems with vision, hearing, cognitive function, and more.

19. Female Exam: A pelvic exam checks for issues related to a woman’s reproductive system.

20. Rectal Exam: A rectal exam checks for issues with a man’s prostate or a woman’s rectum or colon.

Your doctor may recommend a few different tests to learn what’s causing your pain. In most cases, you’ll only need to have one or two of these. However, if you’re experiencing more serious symptoms, such as ongoing pain and severe fatigue, your doctor may suggest more tests.

Sources & references used in this article:

Bates’ guide to physical examination and history-taking by L Bickley, PG Szilagyi – 2012 –

Physical Examination and Health Assessment-Canadian E-Book by C Jarvis – 2018 –

Mosby’s guide to physical examination by HM Seidel, JW Ball, JE Dains, GW Benedict – 2006 –

What can the history and physical examination tell us about low back pain? by RA Deyo, J Rainville, DL Kent – Jama, 1992 –

Physical examination: frequently observed errors by S Wiener, M Nathanson – Jama, 1976 –

Physical examination and patellofemoral pain syndrome by M Fredericson, K Yoon – American journal of physical medicine & …, 2006 –

Clinical guideline: diagnosing syncope: part 1: value of history, physical examination, and electrocardiography by M Linzer, EH Yang, NAM Estes III, P Wang… – Annals of internal …, 1997 –

Relative contributions of history-taking, physical examination, and laboratory investigation to diagnosis and management of medical outpatients. by JR Hampton, MJ Harrison, JR Mitchell, JS Prichard… – Br Med J, 1975 –

Diagnosing pneumonia by physical examination: relevant or relic? by JE Wipf, BA Lipsky, JV Hirschmann… – Archives of Internal …, 1999 –