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Physical examination

A physical examination is a routine test done to assess a person’s general health. It involves an examination of the entire body or specific parts of the body by looking, feeling, listening and producing sounds.

Why a physical examination is done

A physical examination may be done:

  • as part of a regular checkup
  • to screen for diseases, such as cancer
  • to assess risk of future medical problems
  • to encourage a healthy lifestyle
  • to maintain a relationship with a doctor in case of an illness
  • to monitor the health of a person during and after cancer treatment

How a physical examination is done

A physical examination is done by a doctor or other healthcare professional. It often includes a health history.

Health history

A health history is a record of present symptoms, risk factors and all the medical events and problems a person has had in the past. The medical history of a person’s family is also an important part of the health history when screening for cancer.

In taking a medical history, the healthcare professional will ask questions about:

  • a personal health history
    • past illnesses
    • medical conditions
    • surgeries
    • immunizations
    • use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines
    • lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, smoking or alcohol use, sexual and reproductive history
    • detailed questions about any signs and symptoms or potential health problems
  • family history to find out if any close family members have had cancer and the type they had
  • occupational history to identify exposure to substances or hazards that are associated with cancer

When taking a medical history for children, the doctor will also ask questions about:

  • prenatal (before birth) and neonatal (newborn) growth and development, including maternal illness and exposure to drugs and alcohol
  • growth and development

Physical examination

The physical examination includes a review of the person’s body systems that is tailored to their age. A complete physical examination may include:

  • measuring height and weight
  • examining the skin and eyes
  • looking into the nose, mouth and throat
  • feeling pulses in the neck, groin and feet
  • checking reflexes
  • listening to the heart, lungs and abdomen
  • feeling the lymph nodeslymph nodesA small, bean-shaped mass of lymphatic tissue along lymph vessels (tubes through which lymph fluid travels in the body). Lymph nodes store lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that fights germs, foreign substances or cancer cells) and filters bacteria and foreign substances (including cancer cell in the neck, armpits (axilla) or groin to see if they are enlarged
  • taking blood pressure and pulse
  • feeling the abdomen to check for growths on or abnormalities of organs (especially the liver, spleen and kidneys)

For younger children, a complete physical examination may also include:

  • measuring head circumference in infants
  • assessing fine motor development, such as the ability to pick up small objects or tie shoes
  • assessing gross motor development, such as the ability to walk, climb stairs or jump

Depending on the age or sex of the person, a physical exam may include:

  • a clinical breast examination (CBE) to feel for lumps in the breasts
  • a digital rectal examination (DRE) to feel for abnormalities in the lower part of the rectum and to check the condition of the prostate in men
  • a pelvic examination (gynecologic) in women to feel the uterus and ovaries, visually inspect the vagina and cervix and perform a Pap test
  • checking the testicles in men

What happens if a change or abnormality is found

The healthcare professional will discuss the findings of the physical examination with you and may suggest that tests, procedures or follow-up care is needed.

Special considerations for children

Being prepared for a test or procedure can reduce anxiety, increase cooperation and help the child develop coping skills. A parent may be able to encourage the child to express any fears and address these fears in words the child understands.

To prepare children for a physical examination:

  • Explain why they are seeing the doctor.
  • Address any feelings of guilt they may have that the illness or condition is their fault.
    • Reassure children that the illness or condition is not their fault.
    • Let them know that other children have the same illness.
  • Tell children what to expect during a routine physical examination.
    • Explain what will happen and what they will see, feel or hear during the examination.
    • List examples of what the healthcare professional might do, which includes:
      • looking in the mouth, at the eyes and in the ears
      • listening to the chest with a stethoscope
      • tapping or pressing on the tummy to feel what’s inside
      • looking at the genitals to check that they are healthy
      • tapping on the knees
      • looking at the feet
  • Involve children in the process.
    • Help them to gather information for the healthcare professional, including creating a list of any symptoms they have.
    • Ask children to write down any questions they have for the healthcare professional.
  • Honour and respect teenagers’ choices.
    • They may feel more comfortable with a male or female healthcare professional.
    • Before their checkup, find out if they want their parent or caregiver to be a part of the visit.
    • Many teenagers prefer to keep parents out of discussions about puberty, sexual feelings, weight, body image and relationships with peers and family members.

Preparation for a physical examination depends on the age and experience of the child. See the following for more age-specific information on helping children cope with tests and treatment.

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