What to Expect During Your Physical Exam

What to Expect During Your Physical Exam

Whether you like it or not, the physical exam is an absolute when it comes to going to the doctor. However, there really are no absolutes when it comes to a routine physical. A good physician may be brief or thorough, but should at least give you the time you deserve to listen to your concerns and offer counseling for your needs if necessary.

Annual Exam: What to Expect During Your Physical Exam


Your physician is going to ask you about your medical history. This is the time when you will mention any complaints/concerns you have about your health. Your physician is also going to ask you about any lifestyle choices such as your sexual health, exercise/diet habits, alcohol/drug use, and smoking. He will also check on your immunizations and update personal and family medical histories.

Vital Signs

During the exam, your physician will check your vital signs, including:

  • Blood Pressure: Below 120/80 is the normal range for blood pressure. High blood pressure/hypertension is defined as 140/90 or higher.
  • Heart Rate: Normal heart rate is between 60-100 bpm. However, there are many healthy people who have heart rates under 60 bpm.
  • Respiration: Between 12-15 breaths per minute is normal for healthy adults. If you have more than 20 breaths per minute, it can indicate that you have lung or heart problems.
  • Temperature: Normal temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit- but healthy individuals can have resting temps a little lower or a little higher than this.

General Appearance

Your physician will gather lots of information regarding you and your health simply by watching and interacting with you. He will take notes on your memory and mental sharpness/quickness, your skin health, whether you can easily stand/walk, and much more.

Heart Exam

He will use a stethoscope to listen to year heart. This allows him to listen for a heart murmur or irregular heartbeat. In addition, it will indicate whether or not you may have heart disease.

Lung Exam

He will also use his stethoscope to listen to your lungs for any decrease in breath sounds, crackles, or wheezes. These are clues that could indicate heart or lung disease.

Head/Neck Exam

Your physician will have you open up and say “AHHH” This will allow him to take a look at your throat and tonsils. The quality of your gums and teeth will also give an indication as to your overall health. He may also examine your carotid arteries, thyroid, sinuses, ears, eyes, nose, and lymph nodes.

Abdominal Exam

There is a variety of techniques that your physician can use to examine your abdomen to check the size of your liver and presence of abdominal fluids. He can also use his stethoscope to listen to your bowel sounds or palpate for tenderness.

Neurological Exam

During an annual exam, your physician is likely to also check your reflexes, nerves, balance, mental state, and muscle strength.

Dermatological Exam

If your physician finds problems with your skin/nails this could indicate disease somewhere else in your body.

Extremities Exam

Your physician will check for physical and sensory changes. He can check the pulses in your arms/legs and examine joints to assess for abnormalities.

Male Physical Exam

In addition to the above, an annual physical exam for men may include the following:

  • Testicular Exam: Your physician will check your testicles for lumps, changes in size, and tenderness. Most men who have testicular cancer will notice some minor changes that will prompt them to see a physician.
  • Hernia Exam: You’ve heard people talking about the “turn your head and cough” exam. This exam checks for weakness in the abdominal wall between the scrotum and intestines.
  • Penis Exam: Your physician may notice evidence of STD/STIs such as ulcers and warts on your penis.
  • Prostate Exam: Your physician will insert his finger into your rectum to feel your prostate for size and any suspicious areas.

Female Physical Exam

In addition to the above general exam list, a female annual physical exam may include the following:

  • Breast Exam: Your physician will feel your breasts for abnormal lumps that could indicate breast cancer or benign breast conditions. He will also check the lymph nodes in your armpit area and look for any abnormalities of your breast and nipples that are visible.
  • Pelvic Exam: Your physician will examine your ovaries, uterus, vulva, cervix, and vagina. Typically, he will also do a routine check for STD/STI as well. A pap smear will be performed to screen for cervical cancer, as well as to assess your risk of cervical cancer.

Annual Exams Emphasize Prevention

The whole purpose of an annual physical exam is to refocus your attention on screening and prevention. Here are some things to keep in mind:

At the age of 50, it’s necessary to start having regular screenings for colorectal cancer. Individuals who have immediate family members who have had colorectal cancer or have other risk factors present must be screened before the age of 50.

Around the age of 40, women usually begin to have an annual mammogram to screen for breast cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society recommends that women should be given the option to begin requesting screenings between the ages of 40-44. By the time women reach the age of 45-54, women should be getting a mammogram every year- but women who are over the age of 55 can switch to every 2 years if they prefer.

Women should speak with their physician or other health care profession regarding when and how often they should get a mammogram and weigh the benefits versus the risks of screening to determine if they should begin screening at 40.

Of course, healthy behaviors are much more effective at preventing illness than medication- plus, you don’t need a prescription or physician’s approval! Here are some healthy lifestyle choices you can make:

  • Spend around 30 minutes or so most days of the week walking or some other form of exercise and include strength training at least 2 times each week. You will find that this will significantly decrease your risk of developing cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Consume a plant-based diet, low in animal fats.
  • Don’t smoke, abuse drugs, or drink excessively.

Do You Really Need an Annual Exam?

Many people- and their physicians- love the idea of the annual physical exam. However, the studies have shown that the exam is not actually all that helpful in detecting problems and could lead to completely unnecessary testing. In fact, some medical professionals are now saying that the annual physical exam is “not necessary” in people who are generally pretty healthy.

Exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking/abusing drugs/drinking excessively are enough to keep most people healthy- whether they have a physical exam each year or not.

Still, it’s difficult to come up with an argument against keeping a good relationship with your physician by visiting him regularly. As long as you and your physician are paying close attention to your overall health, how often you go is up to you.

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