What is a physical exam?

A physical exam is the appointment you make with your primary care doctor. Expect the following during your visit:

  • questions about your organ systems
  • examination of all your body areas and systems
  • lab work to check for health problems, depending on your age and risk factors, including diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, aneurysms (if indicated) and screening for colon, breast and prostate cancer
  • review of your vaccination history and the need for updates

A physical exam is a tool to help diagnose your symptoms. It starts the minute you walk into the office or even, sometimes, the minute you call the office: we’re aware of how people speak, the way they walk—it lets us notice certain symptoms right away. Then we complete the physical exam you might normally think of and use the information to help make a diagnosis.

A physical exam is an assessment of how healthy your body is currently, and a means of determining what might be causing any symptoms you are having and what medical problems you might be at risk for in the future. Physical exams might be done as part of a requirement for a new job or participation in organized sports, to monitor an ongoing medical problem you are having, or as part of a wellness check to get a status report on your current health. Physical exams are also an important way for pediatricians and other doctors to determine if a child is growing and developing normally.

A physical exam typically begins with a conversation between you and your healthcare provider, during which you explain why you are there and symptoms or concerns about your health that you have. You may share your family and personal medical history. To prepare for a physical exam it helps to bring with you medications (including nonprescription medicines and supplements) that you are taking, a list of symptoms (including when and under what circumstances they occur) and a list of questions you want to ask.

The information you share may help direct the physical exam. For example, if you are experiencing a rash, your doctor may pay particular attention to your skin. If your eyes are bothering you, your doctor may take extra time examining your eyes. In general, in a complete physical exam your doctor may:

  •  take your height, weight, blood pressure and pulse
  •  use a stethoscope to listen to your heart and lungs
  •  look in your eyes
  •  look in your ears, nose and throat
  •  check the color and appearance of your skin, hair and nails
  •  check your reflexes
  •  feel your abdomen
  •  do a pelvic and breast exam (in women)
  •  check for signs of prostate and testicular cancer (in men)

Your doctor may also order lab tests to be done to examine your blood and/or urine for signs of disease or infection. In addition, a physical exam is a good time for your doctor to discuss your lifestyle and ways to improve your health habits if you need to and to update your vaccines if necessary to prevent disease.

Having physical exams regularly is also a way to establish an ongoing relationship with your doctor so that when health problems arise, your doctor can build on what he or she already knows about your health to provide the best treatment possible.

A physical exam specifically refers to the exam the doctor performs in the office. Listening to the heart, the lungs, examining the abdomen are all examples of part of the physical exam. Some health conditions can be easily determined by a doctor on a physical exam, and sometimes an abnormal exam might point out the need for further testing to help determine if there is a problem. Often when people say they are going for a “physical,” they are thinking of blood work or other tests. Those things can be an important part of helping to screen for any problems, or follow the progress of medical problems they already have. The most common (and most reliable) way that doctors pick up medical problems is by taking a person’s history and examining him or her. Seeing a doctor regularly for a “physical” also gives people the opportunity to discuss which tests might be best for them as well.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.