What is a physical examination?
A physical examination is a routine test your primary care provider (PCP) performs to check your overall health. A PCP may be a doctor, a nurse practitioner, or a physician assistant. The exam is also known as a wellness check. You don’t have to be sick to request an exam.
The physical exam can be a good time to ask your PCP questions about your health or discuss any changes or problems that you have noticed.
There are different tests that can be performed during your physical examination. Depending on your age or medical or family history, your PCP may recommend additional testing.
The purpose of an annual physical exam
A physical examination helps your PCP to determine the general status of your health. The exam also gives you a chance to talk to them about any ongoing pain or symptoms that you’re experiencing or any other health concerns that you might have.
A physical examination is recommended at least once a year, especially in people over the age of 50. 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 necessary immunizations
- ensure that you are maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine
- build a relationship with your PCP
These exams are also a good way to check cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. These levels may be high without you ever showing any signs or symptoms. Regular screening allows your PCP to treat these conditions before they become severe.
Your PCP may also perform a physical exam before a surgery or before beginning your treatment for a medical condition.
How to prepare for a physical examination
Make your appointment with the PCP of your choice. If you have a family PCP, they can provide you with a physical examination. If you don’t already have a PCP, you can contact your health insurance for a list of providers in your area.
Proper preparation for your physical examination can help you get the most out of your time with your PCP. 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
- if you have an implanted device such as a pacemaker or defibrillator, bring a copy of the front and back of your device card
- any additional questions you would like answered
You may want to dress in comfortable clothing and avoid any excess jewelry, makeup, or other things that would prevent your PCP from fully examining your body.
How is a physical examination performed?
Before meeting with your PCP, a nurse will ask you a series of questions regarding your medical history, including any allergies, past surgeries, or symptoms you might have. They may also ask about your lifestyle, including if you exercise, smoke, or drink alcohol.
Your PCP will usually begin the exam by inspecting your body for unusual marks or growths. You may sit or stand during this part of the exam.
Next, they may have you lie down and will feel your abdomen and other parts of your body. When doing this, your PCP is inspecting the consistency, location, size, tenderness, and texture of your individual organs.
Your PCP 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 to your lungs while you take deep breaths and listening to your intestines.
Your PCP will also use the stethoscope to listen your heart to make sure there are no abnormal sounds. Your PCP can evaluate your heart and valve function and hear your heart’s rhythm during the exam.
Your PCP will also use a technique known as “percussion,” which involves tapping the body like it’s a drum. This technique helps your PCP discover fluid in areas where it shouldn’t be, as well as locate the borders, consistency, and size of organs.
Your PCP will also check your height, weight, and pulse (whether it’s too slow or too fast).
Be sure to communicate with your PCP if you have any concerns throughout the exam. While you can always contact your PCP as needed, your physical examination is your private time set up to ask questions about anything health-related. If you don’t understand any test that your PCP is doing, don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Following up after a physical examination
After the appointment, you are free to go about your day. Your PCP may follow up with you after the exam via phone call or email. They will generally provide you with a copy of your test results and carefully go over the report. Your PCP will point out any problem areas and tell you anything that you should be doing. Depending on what your PCP finds, you may need other tests or screenings at a later date.