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A routine physical examination ensures that you stay in good health. A physical can also be a preventive step. It allows you to catch up on vaccinations or detect a serious condition, like cancer or diabetes, before it causes problems. During a routine physical, your doctor can also check vitals, including weight, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Your doctor will use a physical exam to see how your body is performing. Depending on your personal health history, your doctor may choose to focus on certain areas. If you have a family history of heart disease, for example, you may receive additional blood pressure checks, blood tests, and diabetes and cholesterol screenings.
Based on test results, age, and personal health history, the exam is also an opportunity to discuss future prevention measures with your doctor.
An average physical exam may include the following:
Your doctor may ask for an update on new developments and changes in your health history. This may include questions about your job and relationships, medications, allergies, supplements, or any recent surgeries.
This includes taking a blood pressure reading and checking your heart rate and respiratory rate. Your blood pressure should be checked at least once every year to once every three years, depending on your history.
Your doctor will review your appearance for signs of any potential conditions. They’ll check the parts of your body that could visually indicate any existing health issues. This includes examining the following:
As the physical exam continues, the doctor will use tools to look in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat. They’ll listen to your heart and lungs. This exam also includes:
To complete the physical, your doctor may draw blood for several laboratory tests. These can include a complete blood count and a complete metabolic panel (also called a chemistry panel). The panel tests your blood plasma and can indicate any issues that exist in your kidneys, liver, blood chemistry, and immune system. This helps detect irregularities in your body that might indicate a larger problem. Your doctor may request a diabetes screen and a thyroid screen. If you have an increased risk of heart attack, heart disease, or stroke, they may also request a lipid panel (cholesterol test).
Your doctor might request screening tests. These can differ based on your biological sex.
If your doctor believes that a specific part of your body requires closer examination, you may receive what’s known as a focused physical exam. In this type of exam, your doctor may only look at a certain part of your body to confirm their suspected diagnosis.
Most full physical exams are performed during a routine physical in a doctor’s office. When additional screenings or imaging tests are recommended, they may be completed at an imaging center or hospital. Blood test draws can be performed at the doctor’s office before samples are sent to a lab for analysis.
Most portions of a physical exam carry no risks. Some mild discomfort and pain might occur during a blood test when the needle is inserted into the vein for blood withdrawal. A small bruise may also develop where the needle was inserted after it’s removed. This bruise should heal in a few days.
While a physical exam is considered by many to be a great way to develop an overall picture of a person’s health, some experts are not convinced that it’s necessary every year. Some abnormal test results may cause unnecessary worry. Talk to your doctor about the best interval for your routine health exam.
You don’t need to prepare for a physical exam unless your doctor requests a fast for a fasting blood test.
Before you go to your test, however, take note of:
You should prepare some questions to ask your doctor, such as:
You should also be prepared to answer some of your doctor’s questions, including:
Your doctor may request a return visit to discuss test results or follow up on any exam findings. The physical exam is a chance for a frank discussion about health, habits, and your future. With your doctor’s help, you’ll be able to tackle signs of potential problems with a plan.
Routine physicals, especially as you get older, can prevent many potential health issues. They can also help you prepare for any issues that you may be at risk for due to aging, your family history, or lifestyle. Communicating with your doctor at each physical can help you learn more about your body and what you need to do to stay at your healthiest.
Written by: Kimberly Holland and Tim Jewell
Medically reviewed on: May 02, 2017: Judith Marcin, MD
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