Your Physical Exam: Purpose & Major Components

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  • 0:01 Two Powerful Tools
  • 0:46 The Physical Exam and…
  • 2:41 The Major Components…
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

The physical exam is one of the most important tools at your doctor's disposal. Find out why, as well as what the major components of this critical test actually are.

Two Powerful Tools

Doctors have two incredibly powerful tools at their disposal in helping to figure out what the problem is with any patient. They are not needles and syringes. They are not MRIs or CT scans. They are the history taking of a patient and the physical exam. If doctors don't ask you the right questions and if they do not examine you properly, then they cannot possibly have a clue as to whether or not they need to use a needle and syringe, an MRI, or a CT scan. Or anything else, for that matter. This is why this lesson will key in on what the physical exam is, what major components it includes and why.

The Physical Exam and Its Purpose

A physical exam is a test your doctor performs in order to determine the general status of your health by looking for signs of a disease process or ailment.

Other than asking you the right questions, the physical exam is the first test that your doctor uses to lay out the groundwork for determining if there's something wrong, where, and why, as well as what further tests need to be run in order to reach a conclusion and an appropriate treatment plan.

Car mechanics look over a car for tell-tale signs of wear and tear to determine what steps they should take next or recommendations they should make to you. Computers have diagnostic software that examines them for problems, with suggestions for further troubleshooting. And your doctor has their eyes, ears, nose, and hands for that and so much more.

It is recommended you receive a physical exam at least once per year. This isn't so your doctor can milk insurance for money. It's because a doctor's training allows them to spot problems that you may not even be aware of.

And at the very minimum, even if there are no problems, it provides a baseline for the doctor to reference in the future when something does go wrong. It allows them to figure out if a problem is a new one, an old one, and how far it has progressed.

The physical exams also help to build trust between you and a doctor. If you never go to see one, you may not even know if you two are a good fit for one another! During your visit, immunizations may be updated if you have forgotten about one. Or another one, important discussions about things to look out for given your age or gender will take place, important routine blood work may be run, and again, possible diseases may be caught early so they can be more successfully treated.

The Major Components of the Physical Exam

Anyways, the major components of the physical examination itself are as follows.

Your physician will use their eyes, ears, and nose to inspect any immediate problems such as growths on your skin, nutritional state, your gait, how you speak, any abnormal odors, and so forth. Their eyes and ears see and hear things that may not appear troublesome to you but, based on their experience, may be an early indicator of something that will become a big problem later.

A doctor will also use his or her hands during the process of palpation. This refers to the use of the hands and fingers to examine something by touch, especially in order to diagnose a problem. For instance, your abdomen will be felt in order to help figure out if an internal growth not seen with the naked eye is noticeable, if something is in the wrong position, doesn't feel normal in shape or texture, or causes you pain.

You may be lying down as the doctor rotates a leg or arm in order to make sure you aren't feeling any pain and that the range of motion, the distance a body part travels, is appropriate. Limited range of motion may be a sign of a joint problem.

A stethoscope, an instrument used to listen to internal organs, not just the heart and lungs, will be used by the doctor to figure out if the heart sounds ok, the lungs are clear, and the intestines sound normal. Yes, even the intestines are checked for things like borborygmi, the rumbling or gurgling sounds that occur when gastrointestinal (GI) muscles contract to move food, fluid, and gas through the GI tract.

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