What is a physical exam and how can you prepare yourself and your kids for the exam?
A routine physical exam can be an important tool in maintaining your overall health and wellbeing. Not only can a physical exam pinpoint problems that need to be addressed or at least monitored, but it can also potentially save your life if serious issues are uncovered.
Additionally, an annual physical can afford you the peace of mind that comes from a better knowledge of your true physical condition. We often wrestle with the fear of the unknown in many areas of life, and we shouldn’t waste time and energy worrying about our health in areas where we can get real answers through an easy medical exam.
Two of the primary factors that should be checked in a physical exam are cholesterol levels and blood pressure. If you check your blood pressure outside of the doctor’s office and the systolic number (top number) is greater than 130 or the diastolic number (bottom number) is greater than 85, contact your doctor. Your height and weight should be checked at every exam.
The doctor performing your physical will check for other factors like muscle tone, range of motion, and will perform physical palpation of your abdomen and possibly other areas. He or she will of course listen to your heart, lungs, and bowels for signs of possible problems. Women should have an annual well woman exam that includes a breast exam, pelvic exam, and Pap smear. The breast exam should be a supplement to—and not a replacement for—regular, careful self-examination done at home on a regular basis.
The pelvic exam involves manipulation of the ovaries and other structures in the lower abdomen to check for unusual tenderness, enlargement, or other abnormalities. A Pap smear is a valuable test that screens for cervical cancer and other disorders. If your Pap smears are negative for 3 years in a row, your doctor may recommend that you only undergo a Pap smear every two to three years. During the physical exam, your doctor may also discuss individualized issues such as birth control or hormone therapy.
Also, women over 40 (and some younger women with a higher risk of breast cancer), should have a yearly mammogram and be screened for colorectal cancer in addition to the other elements of their regular physical exam. Men, especially those over the age of fifty, should have a yearly prostate and rectal exam to check for colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. Colonoscopies should be performed for patients at high risk for colon cancer (strong family histories of colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, prior large colorectal adenomas, or previous instances of colorectal cancer).
Additionally, you should have a stool guaiac test done every year and a flexible sigmoidoscopy every three to five years. Just as women should perform a breast exam, men should perform a monthly testicular self-exam. If you are not sure how to perform this exam and what you should be looking for, have your doctor give you instructions. Everyone should see a dentist at least once per year for cleaning, x-rays, and examination.
All adults over forty should also have a complete eye examination every two years to screen for glaucoma and other silent eye diseases. And don’t forget your tetanus-diptheria booster vaccination every ten years. Men and women over the age of fifty, and those with compromised health conditions, should also get a flu vaccine every year.
Most of us take our children in for a well child exam once a year. And just like other areas of life, most of us neglect taking ourselves in for a comparable physical exam. Scheduling that appointment today will benefit you by screening for disease and potential problems, as well as helping you assess future issues and appropriate plans of action.