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A physical exam is a routine test done by a doctor or nurse to check your overall health. It examines your body by looking, feeling and listening.
A physical exam may also be called a complete physical exam, a routine physical or a checkup.
Why a physical exam is done
A physical exam is often done as part of a regular checkup, but it can be done at any time. It may be done to:
- check for possible diseases and medical conditions, including cancer
- find medical issues that may become problems in the future
- allow your doctor to notice and keep track of any changes in your physical health
- check your health during and after cancer treatment
- ensure you maintain a healthy lifestyle
- help your doctor decide if more tests are needed
How a physical exam is done
A physical exam is usually done in a doctor’s office or an exam room in a medical clinic or hospital.
A health history is usually taken at the same time as the physical exam. 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 doctor or healthcare professional will ask you about:
- past and current diseases, medical conditions and illnesses
- surgeries you have had
- immunizations you have had
- medicines, vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies you are taking (prescription and over-the-counter drugs)
- current signs and symptoms of diseases such as cancer
- your lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, tobacco and alcohol use and sexual and reproductive history
- your family history of cancer and other diseases
The physical exam includes a review of the person’s body systems that is tailored to their age. During a physical exam, your doctor may:
- measure your height and weight
- examine your skin and eyes
- look into your nose, mouth, throat and ears
- feel pulses in your neck, groin and feet
- check your body’s reflexes
- listen to your heart and lungs
- take your blood pressure and pulse
- feel lymph nodes in your neck, armpits or groin to check if they are enlarged
- feel your abdomen to check for abnormalities or growths on organs such as the liver, spleen and kidneys
Depending on your age and sex, a physical exam may also include:
- a skin exam
- a clinical breast exam (CBE) to feel for lumps in the breasts
- a digital rectal exam (DRE) to feel for abnormalities in the lower part of the rectum and to check the prostate in men
- a Pap test and pelvic exam in women to check organs in the pelvis such as the vagina, cervix and uterus
- an exam of the scrotum and testicles in men to check for lumps, swelling or tenderness
What happens after a physical exam
Your doctor will talk to you about the results of the physical exam and suggest anything that you should be doing differently. They may recommend more tests, procedures, follow-up care or treatment.
Special considerations for children
For babies and young children, a physical exam may include:
- asking questions about their growth and development
- measuring the size around their head (the circumference)
- checking fine motor development, such as their ability to pick up small objects or tie shoes
- checking gross motor development, such as being able to walk, climb stairs or jump
Preparing children before a test or procedure can help lower their anxiety, increase their cooperation and develop their coping skills. This includes explaining to children what will happen during the test, such as what they will see, feel and hear.
Tell toddlers and other young children what to expect during a physical exam. Examples of what the doctor may do include:
- looking in the mouth, at the eyes and in the ears
- listening to the chest
- tapping or pressing on the tummy
- looking at the genitals to check that they are healthy
- tapping on the knees
- looking at the feet
It can help to involve older children in preparing for a physical exam. Help them to gather information for the doctor, such as writing down any problems or questions they have.
Older children and teenagers may feel more comfortable choosing a male or female doctor.
Many teenagers prefer to keep parents or caregivers out of discussions about puberty, sexual feelings, weight, body image and relationships. Before the physical exam, find out if they want you or another adult to be a part of the visit.
Preparing a child for a physical exam depends on the age and experience of the child. Find out more about helping your child cope with tests and treatments.
A 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 cells) from lymph fluid.
I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant.
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The latest Canadian Cancer Statistics report shows about half of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.