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What to expect at an annual physical

Routine health screenings are an integral part of maintaining personal health. Although some individuals make frequent visits to their physicians, many others limit their doctor visits to their annual physicals.

Those who have never had a physical examination may be unsure of what to expect of such a procedure. That uncertainty can induce anxiety. However, a physical examination is a simple procedure for many people. Depending on a patient's age, doctors may consider a more extensive examination, but the following procedures are what constitute a physical for younger patients without preexisting medical conditions.

Vital signs

During a physical, doctors will check patients' vital signs. Patients can expect to have their blood pressure taken and pulse rates measured. Respiration rates may be taken to determine if there is a lung or heart problem. Doctors also will examine a patient's ears, nose and sinuses. The neck and possibly under the arms also will be examined to check the feeling of the lymph nodes and the carotid arteries. Some doctors hook patients up to a machine that measures heart rhythm through sensors on various areas of the body.

Medical history

Doctors also discuss patients' medical histories, updating their charts with any new information when necessary. Inquiries about particular health issues that run in the family will be discussed, as well as any illnesses or hospitalizations patients may have had in the past. Doctors will ask patients if they are taking any medications or supplements, and also will ask if patients have been dealing with any nagging medical issues.

Physical examination

During the physical examination, doctors will look at and feel patients' abdomens to detect the size of their livers and to determine if there is any abdominal fluid present. The stethoscope may be placed on the abdomen to listen for bowl sounds. The physician also may examine other areas of the body, including the back and spine to ensure there are no abnormalities. A weight and height check will be given to measure for body mass index, or the percentage of body fat patients have, which will then be measured against the norm for patients of similar age, weight and height.

Female who do not see a separate gynecologist also may receive a pelvic examination and breast exam during their physical examinations. Doctors will check that the uterus and reproductive organs are in good health, and feel for lumps or other issues within the breast tissue. A sample may be taken from the cervix so a Pap smear can be conducted to determine if cervical cancer is present. An external exam will look for sores or other indications of disease.

Men can expect a visual examination of the penis and testicles. The physician will check the external structure to look for abnormalities like tumors or hernia. To check for hernia, the physician may examine visually or feel the scrotum and ask patients to cough as part of the exam.

Dermatological exam

Some doctors will examine the skin for the appearance of unusual moles or growths that could be indicative of skin cancer or refer patients to a dermatologist for such an examination.

Additional tests

Nerves and neurological responses, including strength and balance tests, may be tested during a physical. Doctor also may look for sensory changes in the extremities of the body. Doctors may order urine and blood analyses to verify that the levels are within range. A blood test usually will include a cholesterol test, and may include an examination of blood-sugar levels to rule out diabetes.

Men and women over the age of 40 may be referred to specialists who can conduct a mammography, colonoscopy or prostate examinations. These tests will rule out the presence of cancer or other diseases. Doctors also may suggest patients have their vision and hearing checked.

Annual physicals can reassure men and women that they are in good health. Such examinations also can serve as early detection systems that can catch potential health problems before they become more serious.