What Does A Physical Exam Entail?

When you visit your doctor, your appointment often includes a physical exam, which consists of a set of standard tests as an assessment of your overall health.

The types of tests and follow-up tests your doctor decides to do will depend on the reason for your visit, but they all have the aim of assessing your general health and possible risk factors.

Taking Medical History

The purpose of asking about your medical history is to establish baseline information and to identify any risk factors and existing conditions.

Your doctor will ask about your family’s history of disease, any existing conditions you might have, medical procedures you may have had and the medication you are on. They will also ask about your lifestyle habits and overall well-being.

Measuring Vital Sings

During the physical exam, your doctor will measure your vital signs – your temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate and heart rate, as well as observe your body and listen to your breath and heartbeat.

Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of your arteries. Your blood pressure is an important indicator of your overall health.

When your doctor takes your blood pressure, they use a device called a sphygmomanometer, which includes an inflatable cuff that goes around your upper arm. The doctor will pump up the cuff with a bulb to squeeze your arm gently.

As they release the pressure, they will be listening for two numbers. The first one is called systolic blood pressure, and it’s the higher of the two. This number represents the pressure in your arteries when your heart pumps or contracts, pushing blood out into your body.

The second number is the diastolic blood pressure, the lower one. It shows the pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest or between beats, filling up with blood for the next pump.

Together, these two numbers make up your blood pressure reading. It’s essential to know these numbers because they can tell your doctor a lot about your heart health. A normal and healthy blood pressure reading is typically below 120/80 mmHg.

Regular blood pressure checks are vital to monitor your health and catch any potential issues early on.

Heart rate (pulse)

To find out your heart rate, your doctor will typically feel your pulse, usually on your wrist or neck. They will count how many times your heart beats in one minute. That number equals your heart rate.

A normal resting heart rate for adults is usually between 60 to 100 beats per minute. Athletes or people who are very fit might have even lower resting heart rates because their hearts are pumping so efficiently.

If your heart rate is consistently too high or too low, it could be a sign of an underlying health issue that needs attention. For instance, a fast heart rate might be due to stress, fever, or even dehydration. On the other hand, a slow heart rate could be related to certain medications or a problem with your heart’s electrical system.

Respiratory Rate

Your respiratory rate is how many breaths you take in one minute, as a basic measurement of lung health.

A normal respiratory rate for adults is usually between 12 to 20 breaths per minute.

If your respiratory rate is too high, it could be a sign that your body needs more oxygen, maybe due to an infection, fever, or some other issue. On the other hand, a very slow respiratory rate might indicate a problem with your lungs or even something affecting your nervous system.


Your doctor will use a thermometer to take your temperature. This will help detect a fever which may be caused by an infection.

Physical Examination

During a physical examination, your doctor will observe your body using different tools to gauge your overall health. They might give special attention to certain parts, based on what you discussed during the medical history part of your appointment.

Your doctor will examine you from head to toe to gain as much information as they need about your condition.

Head And Neck:

  • Eyes: The doctor will use an ophthalmoscope to examine the structures of your eyes, including the retina, optic nerve, and blood vessels. This can help detect conditions like glaucoma, cataracts, or signs of hypertension in the eyes.
  • Ears: The doctor will use an otoscope to look inside your ears, checking for any signs of infection, earwax buildup, or abnormalities in the ear canal or eardrum.
  • Nose: The doctor will inspect your nasal passages for any signs of congestion, inflammation, or abnormal discharge that may indicate sinusitis or allergies.
  • Throat: The doctor will examine your throat and tonsils, checking for redness, swelling, or any signs of infection, such as tonsillitis or strep throat.
  • Lymph Nodes: The doctor will gently palpate the lymph nodes in your neck to check for any enlargement or tenderness, which can be a sign of infection or other medical conditions.
  • Chest and Lungs: The doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your breathing in various areas of your chest. This allows them to assess the breath sounds, looking for any abnormalities such as wheezing, crackles, or decreased breath sounds that may suggest respiratory conditions like asthma, pneumonia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


The doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your heart sounds in different areas of your chest. They’ll be listening for any irregularities in your heart rhythm or any abnormal heart murmurs, which can indicate various heart conditions, such as arrhythmias, heart valve problems, or heart defects.


The doctor will palpate your abdomen, gently feeling for any tenderness, masses, or enlarged organs. They’ll be checking for the presence of organ enlargement, tenderness, or any abnormal masses that could indicate conditions such as appendicitis, gallbladder issues, or abdominal hernias.


The doctor will carefully inspect your skin from head to toe, looking for any rashes, lesions, moles, or other skin abnormalities. They’ll pay attention to any changes in colour, texture, or size of skin lesions, as these may be signs of skin infections, allergies, or even skin cancer.

Musculoskeletal System:

The doctor will assess your joint mobility by asking you to move different parts of your body. They’ll check for any limitations in movement, pain, or joint deformities that could indicate arthritis, injuries, or other musculoskeletal issues. Additionally, the doctor will test your muscle strength by asking you to resist pressure or perform specific movements, which helps evaluate the function of your muscles.

Planning For The Future

Depending on your age, medical history, and risk factors, the doctor may order additional tests, such as blood tests, urine tests, X-rays, or other diagnostic procedures.

Based on the results of your tests, the doctor may provide a diagnosis of a specific condition or guidance on healthy lifestyle choices and preventive measures. If you went to the doctor because of a specific ailment, the advice and treatment they provide will help you manage your condition and address any concerns you may have.

They may also recommend follow-up visits, further investigations, or specific treatments if necessary.

What Should I Take To My Physical Exam?

It helps to arrive at your appointment prepared. Be sure to wear comfortable clothing and to take along any assistive devices you might use on a daily basis – such as hearing aids or crutches – so that your doctor can take them into account.

Also, bring along your identity card (or driver’s licence) and health insurance card to help registration go smoothly.

Make a list of all of your current medications, immunisations you might have had, previous medical conditions and family history of disease. Having this information on hand will help your doctor to quickly and accurately establish your medical history.

And finally, take along a list of questions to ask your doctor. After all, you have access to them for the limited time of your appointment. Make sure you use the time to discuss anything about your health that might be worrying you.

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