For some people, the annual physical examination is a source of
reassurance that they're as healthy as they feel. Others see it as an alarm
system, to catch health problems before they become serious.
The value of the routine annual exam has been debated recently,
but it remains a cherished tradition among many doctors and patients. What can
you expect from your annual physical exam?
Annual Physical Exam: The Basics
The physical exam is an essential part of any doctor's visit.
Surprisingly, though, there are no absolutes in a routine physical. A good
doctor may be thorough or brief, according to his or her personal style and your
Most people have experienced many aspects of the annual exam:
History. This is your chance to mention any complaints or
concerns about your health. Your doctor will also likely quiz you about
important behaviors, like smoking, excessive alcohol use, sexual health, diet,
and exercise, The doctor will also check on your vaccination status and update
your personal and family medical history.
Vital Signs. These are some vital signs checked by your doctor:
Blood pressure: less than 120 over 80 is a normal blood
pressure. Doctors define high blood pressure (hypertension) as 140 over 90 or
Heart rate: Values between 60 and 100 are considered normal.
Many healthy people have heart rates slower than 60, however.
Respiration rate: Around 16 is normal. Breathing more than 20
times per minute can suggest heart or lung problems.
Temperature: 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is the average, but healthy
people can have resting temperatures slightly higher or lower.
General Appearance. Your doctor gathers a large amount of
information about you and your health just by watching and talking to you. How
is your memory and mental quickness? Does your skin appear healthy? Can you
easily stand and walk?
Heart Exam. Listening to your heart with a stethoscope, a doctor
might detect an irregular heartbeat, a heart murmur, or other clues to heart
Lung Exam. Using a stethoscope, a doctor listens for crackles,
wheezes, or decreased breath sounds. These and other sounds are clues to the
presence of heart or lung disease.
Head and Neck Exam. Opening up and saying "ah" shows off your
throat and tonsils. The quality of your teeth and gums also provides information
about your overall health. Ears, nose, sinuses, eyes, lymph nodes, thyroid, and
carotid arteries are also examined.
Abdominal Exam. Your doctor can use a range of examination
techniques including tapping your abdomen to detect liver size and presence of
abdominal fluid, listening for bowel sounds with a stethoscope, and palpating
Neurological Exam. Nerves, muscle strength, reflexes, balance,
and mental state are assessed.
Dermatological Exam. Skin and nail findings could indicate a
dermatological problem or disease somewhere else in the body.
Extremities Exam. Your doctor will look for physical and sensory
changes. Pulses can be checked in your arms and legs. Examining joints can
assess for abnormalities.