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What to expect during a physical exam

A physical or physical exam is a routine test in which the body of a person is examined, felt or listened to by a health care professional. Certain physical names include a complete physical exam, a physical routine and a check-up.

A doctor or nurse may recommend a physical to:

  • check for possible diseases or medical conditions
  • check for medical issues that may become a problem later on
  • keep track of any changes in a person’s physical health
  • determine whether a person needs further tests

We discuss what to expect during a routine physical exam in this article. They also cover other different forms of physical exam.

What to expect

A doctor performing physical exams
A healthcare professional may listen to the chest during a physical exam.

Healthcare professionals typically undertake a physical examination at their office or in a dedicated room in a clinic or hospital.

It is important for the doctor or nurse to ensure a person can feel safe during a physical examination. The American Medical Association allows clinics to have a chaperone on request and to encourage individuals to bring a friend or relative with them to the exam room.

The health care provider will usually also take a medical history before moving on to the physical test. A medical history is a record of the current symptoms of the person, as well as any risk factors and preceding medical problems that may be relevant.

The doctor or nurse may ask about:

  • past and current diseases or medical conditions
  • previous operations or medical procedures
  • past immunizations
  • any medicines, vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies that the person is currently taking
  • current signs and symptoms
  • lifestyle information, such as diet and exercise habits, the use of tobacco and alcohol, and sexual and reproductive history
  • family history of health conditions or diseases

It will depend on the reason for the test exactly what the physical examination entails, but in general it can include:

  • height and weight measurements
  • nose, mouth, throat, and ear examination with a torch or scope
  • feeling for the pulse in the person’s neck, groin, or feet
  • checking the body’s reflexes
  • listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope
  • measuring blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer
  • feeling the lymph nodes in the neck, underarms, or groin
  • feeling the abdomen to check for abnormalities

For babies and young children, a physical exam may include:

  • asking questions about their development and growth
  • measuring the circumference of their head
  • checking their fine motor development, such as by asking them to pick up small items or tie their shoelaces
  • checking their gross motor development, which can include asking them to walk, climb stairs, or jump
  • looking in the mouth, eyes, and ears
  • listening to the chest
  • checking the health of the genitals
  • tapping on the knees to check reflexes
  • examining the feet

People sometimes undergo physical exams to check for a specific issue or health condition. In these cases, in addition to or in lieu of the above, the healthcare professional may perform specific tests. Below we will discuss some of those common tests.

Skin exam

Doctors recommend routine skin tests to check for irregular growths, moles or other changes that may be a symptom of skin cancer. Such tests are particularly relevant for people with skin cancer risk factors, such as those with a family history of the condition.

As part of a regular check up, a doctor can include a skin exam. Typically the exam will involve the doctor checking the skin of the person from head to toe.

Clinical breast exam

To check for anomalies in and around the breast area, a health care professional may recommend a clinical breast exam.

During this examination, they will use their finger pads to check a whole breast including the area of the underarm and collarbone.

If they find a lump, they’ll take note of its scale, shape , and texture and test if it’s easy to move. This is because soft, smooth, round, and movable lumps tend to be non-cancerous cysts.

The doctor would then typically prescribe further medical tests.

Pap test and pelvic exam

A Pap test is one physical exam a female might undergo.
A Pap test is one physical exam a female might undergo.

A health care provider may inspect the female reproductive organs during a pelvic exam to test for any gynecological problems. We can also do a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer symptoms.

Doctors usually recommend that females undergo their first pelvic exam when they turn 21 years old or experience any of the following symptoms:

  • unexplained pain in the lower stomach or around the vulva
  • vaginal discharge that itches, burns, or smells unpleasant
  • bleeding from the vagina that lasts longer than 10 days
  • missed periods
  • severe menstrual cramps

The doctor will usually ask the person about their time periods and sexual behavior during the visit. They will then ask the person to take off their underwear and lie down in stirrups on the table with their feet and a sheet covering their stomach and legs.

Before going on to speculum testing, the health care professional must physically inspect the area outside the vagina. A speculum is a small plastic or metal instrument. They put it into the vagina, then open it gently so they can see the vaginal canal and the cervix.

The doctor would use a plastic stick to collect a sample of cells from the inside of the cervix for the Pap test part of the exam.

Digital rectal exam

A digital rectum exam is commonly used by health care professionals to check for signs of prostate cancer in males. They may prescribe the examination for people at higher risk of prostate cancer, or for those with any of the following symptoms:

  • bleeding from the rectum
  • a change in bowel habits
  • blood in the semen or urine
  • pain when ejaculating
  • urination difficulties

It takes just a few minutes to do a digital rectal exam. Usually it’s not painful but it may be uncomfortable.

The doctor will ask the individual to remove their pants and underwear before giving them a gown or cloth to wrap around. The person then either stands and bends at the waist, or lies in the fetal position on an exam table on their side.

The health care professional would then gently insert a gloved and lubricated finger in the rectum to examine the prostate for its size and the appearance of any bumps, sensitive or hard spots and other abnormalities. Also, they will examine the lower colon wall, or rectum.


physical exams are a part of routine healthcare. Doctors and nurses use them to check the general health of a person, look for possible medical problems and monitor specific signs.

If a doctor suspects an underlying health condition, further diagnostic testing is typically recommended.

Usually they will do whatever they can to help people feel as comfortable as possible during medical exam. Anyone who has any concerns about taking a physical exam should contact their doctor.

Chukwuebuka Martins

Chukwuebuka Martins is a writer, researcher, and health enthusiast who specializes in human physiology. He takes great pleasure in penning informative articles on many aspects of physical wellness, which he then thoroughly enjoys sharing to the general public.