During a physical examination, a health care provider studies your body to determine if you do or do not have a physical problem.
A physical examination usually includes:
- Inspection (looking at the body)
- Palpation (feeling the body with fingers or hands)
- Auscultation (listening to sounds)
- Percussion (producing sounds, usually by tapping on specific areas of the body)
When you feel perfectly fine, the last thing you want to think about is going to the doctor. But that's exactly when you should be thinking about getting a physical exam. Regular physicals, as well as certain tests and vaccinations can be powerful ways to protect health. Let's talk about physical exams. You might feel well on the outside, but it's hard to know exactly what's going on inside your body. Many conditions that threaten your health don't have any symptoms. For example, you might have no idea that you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, until they make you really sick. How often you need to see your doctor and what tests you get depends on your age and gender. Regular physicals are important for keeping tabs on your health. Plan to see your doctor once every 1 to 5 years, depending on what conditions you have. After age 65, you'll visit the doctor at least once a year. At each physical, your height and weight will be checked and your hearing will be tested. Your doctor should ask whether you've experienced depression, and about your use of alcohol and tobacco. Get your blood pressure checked once every two years, once a year if you're over 65. Look for blood pressure screenings at health fairs or drug stores in your area, or visit your doctor. If you have a health condition like diabetes, heart disease, or kidney problems, you may need to check your blood pressure more often. If your blood pressure is high, you should also have your blood sugar levels tested for diabetes. Men who are over 34 and women over 45 need a cholesterol test once every 5 years. People with certain health conditions may need to have their cholesterol checked more often. Everyone between ages 50 and 75 should be screened for colon cancer, but African-Americans may want to start getting tested at age 45. You can have a colonoscopy every 10 years, a stool test every year, or a flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years. Women need a Pap smear to check for cervical cancer once every 2 to 3 years. They should also have a mammogram to check for breast cancer every 1 to 2 years, depending on their risks. Because bones can become brittle with age, women over 65 need to have a bone density scan. Younger women and men should talk to their doctor about whether they need this test, based on their risks. To keep your teeth strong and healthy, visit your dentist once a year for a cleaning and exam. Also see an eye doctor for an exam every 2 years, especially if you have glaucoma or another vision problem. One of the best ways to avoid unexpected doctor's visits is to get the vaccines that are right for you. Vaccines aren't just a kids issue. Many adults benefit from a flu vaccine each fall or early winter to protect them for the whole season. Once every 10 years, get a Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis. Older adults may also need to get vaccinated against pneumonia and shingles. Getting regular physicals when you aren't sick can help you stay on top of your health. Being proactive will let you and your doctor prevent and find potential problems before you have a chance to get sick.
Swartz MH, Swartz TH. The physical examination. In: Swartz MH, ed. Textbook of Physical Diagnosis. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 6.
Last reviewed on: 1/16/2021
Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.