What is a physical exam?
A physical exam is an evaluation of your overall health. A primary care provider performs a physical exam. This exam focuses on preventive care so you can get to good health or maintain it. If your provider suspects a health concern or you have a concern, they may refer you to see a specialist or offer tests to learn more about your symptoms. You don’t have to be ill to get a physical exam.
Other terms that refer to a physical exam include:
- Well-check or wellness check.
- Preventive care visit.
- Annual physical exam.
- Routine physical exam.
- Pre-employment physical exam.
Physical exam checklist
A healthcare provider will check your general health, which includes your:
For men or people assigned male at birth (AMAB), a healthcare provider may check your genitals and prostate. For women or people assigned female at birth (AFAB), your provider may perform a breast exam.
Why do I need a physical exam?
The purpose of a physical exam is to:
- Check your general health.
- Make recommendations about how you can reach or maintain good health.
- Look for any underlying conditions or address any symptoms you experience.
- Get immunizations or vaccines.
- Ask questions and get answers about your health.
- Verify that you’re in good health to work a job that requires a pre-employment physical or to play a sport that requires a sports physical.
How often do I need a physical exam?
Most healthcare providers recommend you get a physical exam each year (annually).
What is the difference between a sports physical and an annual physical exam?
A sports physical is a type of physical exam that focuses on your current health status and checks to see if you’re healthy enough to play a sport. A sports physical uses some of the same methods as an annual physical but mainly focuses on checking your:
- Height and weight.
- Vision and hearing.
- Muscle and bone health.
Your provider may examine your flexibility and strength during a sports physical, which isn’t usually looked at during an annual physical exam.
What should I bring to my physical exam?
You can prepare for your physical exam by making a list of the following and bringing it with you to the appointment:
- Any medications or supplements you currently take. Identify any prescriptions that need a refill.
- Symptoms, including what they are, when they occur, how long they last and what relieves them.
- Results from prior tests and lab work (including films and reports).
- Any measurements your provider asked you to keep track of, such as blood pressure or blood sugar readings.
- Medical and surgical history, which is a record of your past diagnoses, treatments and procedures.
- Questions you’d like answered.
- Names, addresses and phone numbers of any doctors, specialists or care providers you see. Let your physical exam provider know if you want reports sent to those healthcare providers.
If your physical exam is a sports physical or pre-employment exam, bring paperwork from your coach or employer for your healthcare provider to sign at the appointment.
What can I expect during a physical exam?
During your physical exam, your healthcare provider will begin by asking you how you’re feeling and if you have any symptoms, questions or concerns about your health. If the reason for your exam is for a sport or if it’s a pre-employment physical, tell your provider at the start of your exam so they can fill out the required paperwork.
Before you meet with your primary care provider, a member of your care team will:
- Measure your height and weight.
- Check your vital signs.
- Review your medical history and family medical history.
- Identify what medications or supplements you currently take.
- Assess your social environment and how it affects your health (smoking, substance use, etc.).
- Discuss medical care preferences including a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) status or a living will.
- Review any personal health concerns or symptoms.
Your healthcare provider will ask questions to learn more about your symptoms or concerns, if you have any. For example, if you have pain or discomfort, your healthcare provider may ask:
- Do you feel any unusual discomfort?
- Where’s the discomfort/pain located?
- What does the pain feel like? Is it dull, achy, pressured or sharp?
- Can you assign it a number between 1 and 10, with 10 being the most severe?
- How long does the pain last? Does it come and go? Does it stay for a long time?
- Do you notice that anything causes discomfort? For example, do you feel it after eating, after exercise or at night?
- What relieves the discomfort? Rest, medications, position?
Physical exam (medical examination)
When you meet with your doctor or healthcare provider, they’ll perform a physical exam that evaluates each organ system in your body. Techniques that your healthcare provider will use to complete this exam include:
- Auscultation: Listening to your body.
- Inspection: Looking at your body.
- Palpation: Feeling your body with their fingers or hands.
- Percussion: Tapping or producing sounds on specific areas of your body.
During a physical exam, your provider will:
- Use a stethoscope to listen to your heart and lungs. Your provider will give you instructions to breathe normally and/or take deep breaths.
- Look into your ears using an otoscope instrument that helps your provider see into your ear canal.
- Look into your mouth using a tongue depressor and a light. Your provider may ask you to say, “ah,” during this part of the exam.
- Feel the lymph nodes in your neck. Your provider will use their fingers to gently press against your lymph nodes to check for swelling around the side of your neck.
- Feel your abdomen to check the location and size of your organs. Your provider may ask you to lie down during this part of the exam.
- Examine your skin for any unusual moles, rashes, breakouts or concerns you might have. If you notice changes to your skin, tell your healthcare provider about them.
- Perform a breast and pelvic exam or a genital and prostate exam, depending on your age and anatomy.
- Give you any vaccinations or immunizations that you need.
These examination methods can vary based on your age and the reason for your appointment. If you have specific concerns, a healthcare provider may look closely at the affected part of your body.
How long does a physical exam take?
A physical exam takes about 30 minutes to complete.
What can I expect after a physical exam?
After your physical exam, you can go about your day as usual. Your provider will give you the results of your exam and any signed paperwork for your employer or coach if you need it. They’ll also point out any areas of concern. They can give you a referral to see a specialist in certain cases. Your provider might recommend getting additional testing done to help them understand the cause of your symptoms if you have any. Testing could include but isn’t limited to the following:
- An X-ray.
- A complete blood count (CBC).
- An electrocardiogram (EKG).
- A stress test.
- A urinalysis.
- A lipid panel.
If there are concerns after your physical exam, your provider may request an appointment after testing to monitor the results and make sure you’re in good health.
Results and Follow-Up
What type of results do you get from a physical exam?
A physical exam is a snapshot of your overall health. When the exam is complete, your healthcare provider will let you know if:
- There are any concerns about your health that you should know about.
- You need additional testing.
- You need to see a specialist.
- There are steps you can take to improve your health.
- You’re in good health.
If your provider notices anything that affects your general health, they may ask to see you sooner than one year to monitor anything that’s concerning. Testing may require an additional appointment, if necessary, and a follow-up appointment to go over your results.
When should I call my doctor?
Contact your healthcare provider if you:
- Have questions about your health or test results.
- Have new or worsening symptoms.
- Notice changes to your body, like a lump or new skin growth.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A physical exam is an important part of helping you be as healthy as possible. Depending on your health, your provider may order additional tests or ask for a follow-up appointment. A physical exam is a good way for you to keep a relationship with a provider in the event of an illness or injury. Remember that an annual wellness check is all about you — so it’ll be tailored to you and your specific health needs.
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