A physical examination is a routine checkup performed by your primary care physician or primary care provider (PCP). A physical examination is sometimes also referred to as an annual exam, wellness exam, or preventive exam.
What does a doctor do during a physical exam? During a physical exam, your PCP will perform a series of tests to make sure you’re in good health. Along with finding and assessing any existing health problems, physical examinations are also useful as a preventive measure against potential future health problems.
This page covers the basics of physical examinations, including what to expect and the various types of tests that your PCP may perform. The information will help answer any questions you may have about your upcoming physical examination and help to reduce the stress surrounding the process.
Some insurance plans will cover the cost of physical examinations either entirely or partially. No matter what type of insurance plan you have, be sure to partner up with a trustworthy insurance company that emphasizes accessing healthcare services conveniently. If getting covered for your physical examination is as easy as 1-2-3, you’re more likely to go in for your physical examination in the first place, leading to a healthier life and fewer health problems.
To begin, your PCP will ask about your health history, family history, vaccinations, and supplement usage so that they can make sure they’re performing the necessary tests and giving you the best care possible.
If you’re using a new PCP, you should ask the office of your old PCP to send your file over to your new PCP. After your new PCP reviews your file, they may still want to ask you certain clarifying questions to ensure they’re up to date on all key aspects of your life.
If you’re going to the same PCP as you usually do, they will usually ask about any lifestyle changes that you’ve gone through since your last physical examination.
At the start of your physical examination, your PCP will usually check on these three important vital signs:
Body temperature, with a thermometer
Heart rate (how quickly your heart beats), with a stethoscope
Respiration rate (how quickly you breathe), with a stethoscope
Your PCP will usually also check your blood pressure at the same time as your vital signs.
During the vital signs tests and the blood pressure test, your PCP will check to make sure the recorded values of these tests match up with your values from previous tests and those of healthy people of a similar age as you. If they don’t, that may be an indication that something about your health changed or needs to be looked at.
Your PCP will perform a series of visual tests to monitor your:
Sometimes changes in our eyes are caused simply due to our bodies changing over time. If the problem goes beyond normal changes, your PCP may perform further tests to figure out what is causing the unwanted change.
Note that your PCP will check on the health of your eyes during your routine physical exam, but you will usually need to see an optometrist to get an accurate prescription for glasses or contact lenses.
The office of your PCP does not always have all of the required tools or staff to perform complicated tests on the spot. Most commonly, if the office of your PCP doesn’t employ a phlebotomist, you may be referred to a third party for tests that require a blood sample.
Complete Blood Count
A complete blood count (CBC) is a blood test that looks at the following factors:
Red blood cells
White blood cells
By looking at the different values in a CBC test, healthcare professionals can quickly get an accurate picture of many different facets of your health.
Chemistry panels are wide-ranging tests that usually test for 14 different things, from aspects of your health like electrolyte levels and balances, all the way to the performance and status of major organs.
If lifestyle or hereditary factors put you at risk of diabetes, your PCP may test your blood sugar levels to determine if you have or are at risk of having Type 1 Diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes, or Prediabetes.
Your thyroid is a small organ in your neck near your lymph nodes that helps control your metabolism. Uncontrolled problems with your thyroid can lead to puzzling weight gain and a lack of energy. A thyroid test requires a blood sample and determines the general health of your thyroid.
Heart Disease (Cholesterol)
According to the CDC, more than 600,000 people die each year from heart disease. If any of your lifestyle choices or results from other tests show risk factors of heart disease, your doctor may perform a variety of tests to check on the health of your heart.
A common test for heart disease is a cholesterol test performed with the help of a lipid panel, which will return values for your levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. Values over 40 for HDL, under 120 for LDL, under 150 for triglycerides, and under 200 combined between the three latter values are generally considered to be healthy.
A screening test is a routine test for a certain disease. Screening tests are administered to individuals even if they show no symptoms of the disease. The goal of screening tests is to “catch” serious diseases early on, when they are more easily treatable. The screening tests your PCP may want to perform during your physical examination will vary based on gender, age, and lifestyle and hereditary factors.
A mammogram is a type of breast exam that returns an x-ray image of your breast. Mammograms are strongly ecommended once per year for women 45 to 54 and once or twice per year for women over 55.
A pap smear (“pap test”) is used to test for cervical cancer in women. A small and delicate brush gently removes cells from the surface of the cervix for further inspection. It’s recommended (per CDC) for women 21 and over to talk to their doctors about pap tests.
A pelvic exam is a test that assesses the general health of your vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. Your PCP will physically inspect these parts of your body for any abnormalities or signs of concern. Pelvic exams take only a few minutes and do not hurt. Pelvic exams are recommended for women over the age of 21.
Osteoporosis makes bones feel weak and brittle due to a decrease in bone mineral density or bone mass. In an osteoporosis screening, an x-ray measures how many grams of calcium and other bone minerals are present in a particular segment of bone in your body. Osteoporosis screenings are generally for women over the age of 65.
Prostate Cancer Screening
According to the CDC, prostate cancer affects about 13 out of 100 men in their lifetimes. Prostate cancer is easiest to treat when it’s found in its early stages. Your PCP will perform a short physical rectal examination which does not hurt. Prostate exams are generally recommended for men over 50.
During a testicular exam, your PCP will physically inspect your penis, scrotum, and testicles for signs of lumps, swelling, and shrinking. The entire exam takes only a few minutes and does not hurt. Testicular exams are generally recommended for men over 15 and under 40 because testicular cancer most commonly affects men aged 15 to 36.
Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
Your PCP will test for an abdominal aortic aneurysm if he notices symptoms of one during other tests or if you are at risk due to hereditary factors. Tests may be performed with the help of an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI. They are generally recommended for men over the age of 65.
Do You Really Need an Annual Physical Exam?
Physical examinations take time out of your day. And for most people, doctor visits aren’t exactly the most thrilling activity in the world. Which leads many to ask the question—do I really need to get a physical examination?
Even if you look and feel healthy, it’s still recommended to get a physical exam when it’s recommended by your PCP (usually at least once per year). Not all diseases and ailments will cause you to display obvious symptoms, especially in their early stages. If a test from your PCP shows a health concern in a certain area, it’s often significantly easier to treat the problem than it would be if you were to wait until symptoms grew severe.
Overall, annual physical exams are highly recommended due to how effective they are at diagnosing current health problems and preventing future health issues. The reduced stress of knowing all of your tests came back showing you’re in good overall health never hurts, either!