Physical Examination

An examination by a doctor to check the condition or health of various body systems and organs

A physical examination is often an essential part of diagnosis or checkups. If you have symptoms, your doctor will concentrate on areas related to your symptoms or in which abnormalities can be detected. He or she may check other areas as well. For example, the doctor may examine your ankles if you have symptoms of heart failure, such as shortness of breath, because heart failure is associated with swelling of the ankles.

Skin, hair, and nails

Some obvious skin problems such as rashes or discoloration may be symptoms of a skin disorder, but may also indicate a more widespread problem such as systemic lupus erythematosus. Your hair and nails can also be affected by certain disorders. For example, generalized thinning of your hair may be due to a hormonal disorder, and a change in the shape or colour of your nails may indicate iron-deficiency anaemia.

Heart and circulation

Your doctor may check the strength and rate of your pulse, usually at the wrist or the side of the neck. A rapid or uneven pulse may suggest a heart problem. Pulses at other points, such as in the groin, may provide more information about your circulation. Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your heart. Abnormal sounds known as heart murmurs may indicate heart valve damage. Blood pressure measurement is a routine part of most examinations.


If your doctor has noticed you have difficulty in breathing, he or she may listen to your chest and back with a stethoscope and tap the surface of your chest to check for fluid in the lungs. Abnormal sounds, such as wheezing, may indicate narrowed airways.

Abdomen and rectum

By feeling and tapping your abdomen, your doctor can detect abnormal swellings. Listening to the intestines with a stethoscope may help to confirm the presence of a blockage.

In a rectal examination, your doctor will insert a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or tender areas. This is done to look for colorectal cancer, especially in people over 50. In men, the doctor may check for an enlarged prostate gland or prostate cancer.

Reproductive organs

In men, the scrotum and testes may be examined to detect lumps. The penis is examined for signs of infection. Boys may be checked to make sure that both of their testes have descended properly. In women, internal pelvic examinations may be performed to detect disorders of the reproductive organs. A cervical smear test should be performed every 3–5 years in sexually active women to screen for early signs of cancer of the cervix. Your doctor may inspect your breasts for nipple abnormalities or puckering of the skin and also feel your breasts for any lumps or swellings.

Bones, joints, and muscles

Your doctor may examine a joint for swelling or tenderness, which could indicate a disorder such as arthritis, and test the range of pain-free movement. He or she may also check that the surrounding ligaments and muscles are working normally.

Nervous system

Your doctor may test your strength, coordination, balance, and response to sensations. By testing reflexes, such as a knee jerk, he or she will be able to assess the function of specific nerves. The doctor may also ask you questions to check mental functions such as memory.

Technique: Basic Examination Techniques

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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