What is a physical examination?

The annual well-check goes by many names — well-check, check-up, preventive care visit, annual physical — but it’s important no matter what you call it.

Instead of being focused on problems, like many other doctor visits, the well-check is focused on preventive care. It’s also an active part of our pursuit of personalized healthcare because it helps us focus on your specific health status and needs.

Here’s what to expect from an annual well-check.

1. Measure height and weight.

These standard measurements provide a baseline and a way to monitor your health. For example, big changes in weight can indicate health problems.

2. Check vital signs.

You know the routine — blood pressure and heart rate especially. These are important for everyone to monitor, but especially if you have a family history of heart disease.

3. Review personal health concerns.

Is a new symptom bothering you? Have you noticed something you want to follow up about? This is your chance.

Be sure you tell the doctor, in your words, how you are feeling, if anything is bothering you and what symptoms you are having. Symptoms vary from person to person. Start by explaining what kinds of symptoms are you having. It’s important that you describe your symptoms and when they occur.

Some things the doctor needs to know are:

  • Do you feel any unusual discomfort?
  • Where is the discomfort/pain located?
  • What does the pain feel like? Is it dull, achy, pressure or sharp?
  • How long does the pain last? Does it come and go? Does it stay for a long time?
  • Do you notice that anything causes the discomfort? Do you feel it after eating, after exercise or at night?
  • What relieves the discomfort? Rest, medications, position?

4. Review medical care preferences.

This is also your chance to review your preferences related to medical care. Have you considered your approach to blood transfusions or do not resuscitate (DNR) status, for example? These aren’t always easy conversations to have, but your doctor can walk you through them.

5. Assess your social environment and how it affects your health.

Are you around a lot of smoking? Is stress a major issue for you at work? What is your diet like? Knowing about these types of environmental factors can help your doctor know your risks — and help you reduce them.

6. Review your medication list.

What are you currently taking, including supplements and over-the counter drugs? Knowing this information helps with future prescriptions and with avoiding any dangerous drug interactions.

7. Review family health history.

Family history is such an important tool in personalized healthcare. Come prepared with information about your relatives, including what conditions they have or had, and if they are no longer living, how they died and at what age.

8. Have an actual physical exam.

Your doctor will evaluate each organ system. For certain age groups, this also may include a clinical breast exam and pelvic exam for women and a genital and prostate exam for men.

9. Get necessary tests and screenings.

This may include blood tests, which are customized to evidence-based screening guidelines for your age group and sex. Be sure to follow up with your doctor’s office about results, too.

This list is not all-inclusive, of course. Depending on your health, your doctor may order additional tests or ask additional questions. Remember that an annual well-check is all about you — so it will be tailored to you, too.

What should you bring to your doctor's visit?

Patients often ask what they should bring to their doctor visit. This is a very important question because bringing the right things helps your physician have as much information as possible when making a diagnosis and creating a treatment plan.

Please bring the following with you to the appointment:

  • Current medication and allergy list (include vitamins and herbal supplements).
  • List of symptoms – what they are, when they occur, how long they last and what relieves them.
  • Results from prior tests and lab work (include films and reports).
  • Any measurements your doctor has asked you to keep track of, such as blood pressure, blood sugar or daily weight readings.
  • Medical and surgical history (a record of your past diagnoses, treatments and procedures).
  • Questions you would like answered.
  • A list of your current doctors, including their names, addresses, phone numbers and fax numbers. Please let us know if you would like reports sent to those physicians.

During the visit: Tell me what’s bothering you

The physical exam always begins with you telling the doctor, in your words, how you are feeling, what is bothering you and what symptoms you are having. Symptoms vary from person to person. Start by telling the doctor why you made the appointment. What kinds of symptoms are you having? It’s important that you describe your symptoms and when they occur.

Some things the doctor needs to know are:

  • Do you feel any unusual discomfort?
  • Where is the discomfort/pain located?
  • What does the pain feel like? Is it dull, achy, pressure or sharp?
  • How long does the pain last? Does it come and go? Does it stay for a long time?
  • Do you notice that anything causes the discomfort? Do you feel it after eating, after exercise or at night?
  • What relieves the discomfort? Rest, medications, position?

More information to help you prepare for your appointment

Your physical exam is the first step to diagnosis and treatment of any conditions you may have. Or, if you're in good health, it can help you stay that way. In addition to bringing the items already mentioned to your appointment, you can also prepare by learning more any symptoms or conditions that you're worried about.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A well-check is an important part of helping you be as healthy as possible. This look at what may happen in your exam isn't all-inclusive, of course. Depending on your health, your doctor may order additional tests or ask additional questions. Remember that an annual well-check is all about you — so it will be tailored to you, too.

Reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional.

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