Adults of any age should have an annul physical examination at their local clinic or hospital. A physical exam will usually provide the first clues that something may be amiss — and if you catch an ailment at this early stage, before you feel any physical symptoms, chances are that much better that you can arrest the problem before it becomes serious.
If you have your physical done at the same hospital or clinic each year, even seeing the same doctor, it’s that much easier for the doctor to monitor your health and overall physical condition from year to year.
A nurse will always measure your height and weight; if there’s a significant difference from the year before, your doctor will try to determine why. Your doctor will also visually scan your body and your overall appearance and behavior. Do you move briskly or hesitantly? Is your speech normal? Are there indications of memory loss? How does your skin appear? Again, even if your doctor does not remember details such as this from your previous exam, the examining doctor at that time would have made note of any irregularities, and your current doctor will make comparisons.
Your Health History
You will likely have to fill out a form describing your health history, with information about existing conditions, past operations or illnesses, allergies, lifestyle, and the like. Be honest; if you smoke a pack of cigarettes every day, tell your doctor. You might have to listen to a lecture, but that’s better than withholding critical information. Other questions will involve how much alcohol you drink, how much exercise you get, what kind of food you eat, and how active your sex life is. If you’ve recently traveled, particularly to an exotic destination, tell the doctor; puzzling symptoms might be explained by something you “picked up” during your travels.
Check Your Heart and Lungs
The nurse will measure your vital signs. Blood pressure is expressed as two numbers, the first indicating systolic pressure (the maximum pressure in an artery at the moment your heart beats) and the second indicating diastolic pressure (the minimum pressure in an artery at the moment between beats). A normal reading is around 120/80; high blood pressure, or hypertension, is generally diagnosed with readings higher than 140/90. Your heart rate is taken by reading your pulse, and is expressed as beats per minute.
A normal resting heart beats from 60 to 100 times per minute; lower heart rates, even as low as 40 beats per minute, imply more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. If you’re above 100 beats per minute, there might be a problem. As for respiration rate, breathing 16 times each minute is normal. Breathing more than 20 times a minute can suggest a heart or lung condition. And your temperature should be 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Body temperature can vary slightly, but too much higher than 98.6 and you’re feverish.
Your doctor should conduct a thorough physical exam. Using a stethoscope, he or she will listen to your heart, checking for an irregular beat, heart murmurs, or other indications of heart disease. Likewise, your doctor will listen for crackles or wheezing in your lungs. Your throat, eyes, teeth and gums, ears, and nose will all be examined. Your doctor will ask you to lie down, and he or she will then check your abdomen, tapping your abdomen to detect liver size and the presence of abdominal fluid and listening to your bowels for abnormal sounds. The doctor will also test your reflexes and muscle strength, and will check your extremities — taking a pulse from the sole of your foot, for instance.
If you live in a sunny climate, it’s very important that your doctor do a thorough visual scan of your skin, particularly your chest, back, and arms. Certain kinds of moles and other markings may indicate melanoma, and the doctor may advise that you have odd-looking moles or marks removed and biopsied. If you have several marks on your chest and back, you may want to see a dermatologist separately, and make an annual event of a skin scan in addition to your general physical exam.
Other tests may include a chest x-ray to check the condition of your lungs; if you’re not a smoker, however, this might not be needed every year. Also, an electrocardiogram, or EKG, can reveal more about the condition of your heart. An EKG reads your heart’s electrical activity through sensors that are attached to your chest and torso for a short period of time. This is a painless procedure and is recommended if your family has a history of heart disease.
Check Your Cholesterol Levels
The nurse will draw blood, which will be used to test your cholesterol, thyroid, glucose, and other chemical variables; your doctor will closely examine these results and interpret them for you in a follow-up conference. You will be asked to provide a urine sample (on the spot, in a bathroom at the clinic; if you have to urinate just prior to your exam, hold some back). A thorough exam may require a stool sample as well — the clinic will provide you with a receptacle beforehand so you can produce the sample as convenient and simply bring it to the clinic on the day of your exam.
If you’re over 50, you should be regularly screened for colorectal cancer. Women over the age of 40 should have a mammogram screening, for breast cancer, as well as a pap smear and pelvic exam, to test for cervical cancer. Doctors advise women patients how to check their own breasts, feeling for abnormal lumps. Men, meanwhile, are given a testicular exam — again, looking for lumps or tenderness — and a prostate exam. Prostate cancer can be checked through a blood test rather than invasively, although neither means of testing for prostate cancer is 100 percent accurate.
If you haven’t had a check-up for a while, schedule one as soon as convenient; it’s the best way to diagnose problems early, before they become hazardous.