Patient receiving a physical exam.

What Happens During a Physical Exam?

An annual physical exam is the best way for both you and your primary care provider (PCP) to stay informed and up-to-date about your overall wellness. During this checkup, your PCP is able to review your health status, updates in personal and family history since your last checkup, performs a general medical exam, which usually includes different tests depending on your age (along with other risk factors, like family history of health issues).

Here’s what to expect when you go to the doctor’s office for your physical exam.

Medical History Review

The first part of the visit consists of updating your healthcare provider on current medical conditions and concerns, as well as any new or changed medications and allergies. In order for healthcare professionals to provide the best care, it’s essential that they understand your current state of health!

If you are seeing a healthcare provider for the first time, it is important to give a complete health history (including additional information like surgical history). Your primary care physician will also consult your medical records to make sure that you are up-to-date with your immunizations and vaccines.

The Physical Examination

A physical examination is part of every health care provider’s routine. During this exam, your PCP checks for signs of illness and issues, using hearing, visualization, and palpation to detect problems. The examination can include the following:

  • Head and neck exam
  • Chest exam
  • Abdominal exam
  • Extremities (arms and legs)
  • Neurological Exam

Your doctor also takes height and weight measurements to determine your body mass index (BMI). Being overweight or obese can lead to (or exacerbate) many health problems, and your PCP can recommend a plan for weight loss, if necessary.

[FREE CHECKLIST] Get the most out of your next physical exam by using this checklist of questions to ask your primary care provider!

Measuring Vital Signs

Your vital signs are an important indicator of your health, and your PCP will want to measure them in order to gain a fuller picture of your health.


Normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and anything higher could be an indicator of sickness or infection.

Blood Pressure

Normal blood pressure for a healthy adult should be below 120 over 80. Blood pressure over 130 over 80 is considered to be stage 1 hypertension (or high blood pressure).

Heart Rate

Normal resting heart rates can vary widely and still be considered to be within a normal healthy range. Anything between 60 and 90 beats per minute is normal for the average healthy adult. Lower resting heart rates are normal for individuals who are athletes or otherwise very physically active.

Heart and Lungs

Using a stethoscope, your PCP will listen to your heart and lungs. Unusual sounds as you inhale and exhale could be a sign of lung illness. Abnormal sounds from the heart can mean the heart is not pumping blood efficiently, or an issue with the heart valves not properly opening or closing. If your doctor detects an abnormality, he or she will follow up with further tests or refer you to a specialist.

Blood Tests

You might have a blood sample taken, which will be sent off to a laboratory for analysis. Blood tests are helpful in determining your health status and in diagnosing various health conditions. They are used to determine your cholesterol levels and are also used in cancer screening tests for early detection of many cancers.

Depending on the lab, it usually takes less than a week to get your results back. If you’re fasting, make sure you don’t eat or drink anything except for water for at least 8 hours beforehand.

Urine Testing

Your doctor may also ask you to give a urine sample for laboratory tests. They use this sample to evaluate your overall health and detect any urinary tract infections or other abnormalities related to how your kidneys are working.

A healthy adult’s urine is usually clear to light yellow in color and should not have an overpowering smell. Urine color can vary depending on what food or drink you have had (beets, rhubarb, or asparagus may turn your urine a darker color), and the smell of your urine can also change depending on what you eat. (If you eat asparagus, your urine may smell like sulfur!)

Urine should not be cloudy or foamy. If it is cloudy, there is likely bacteria in the urine sample – which usually means that there is a urinary tract infection (UTI). If it’s foamy, it could mean that there’s protein in the urine – which can indicate kidney issues.

Electrocardiogram (EKG)

If you are at risk of heart disease, or if you are older than age 40, your PCP might perform an electrocardiogram, or EKG. An EKG is a test that checks the electrical conduction system of the heart, but it can also help your PCP pick up subtle heart health abnormalities. It shows how fast your heart is beating and its rhythm (steady or irregular). This can help find out if you have warning signs of a heart attack, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, an enlarged heart, electrolyte imbalances (too much/not enough in the body), and more.

The procedure for an EKG is not complicated. Small electrodes are attached to the skin of the chest with sticky pads. The electrodes pick up electrical signals from your heart and send them to a machine that records the electrical impulses as they pass through different parts of the heart muscle.

Male Physicals and Female Physicals

Most of the tests conducted during a physical exam will be performed on both men and women, but there are also some exams that are gender-specific.

Male Examinations

Additional examinations for men can include a visual examination of the penis, a testicular exam (where testicles are checked for lumps or swelling), a hernia exam, or a prostate exam (prostate cancer is one of the easiest cancers to treat if detected early).

Female Examinations

Examinations for women can include a breast exam to check for lumps in the breast tissue. Women can also receive a pelvic exam, which is an examination of the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, and ovaries.

While pelvic exams are most commonly performed by a gynecologist, primary care providers can also provide gynecologic care like pelvic exams, pap smears tests (which screen for cervical cancer and the human papillomavirus, or HPV) and breast exams. PCPs can also write an order for annual mammograms for women who are at risk or over the age of 40 years old.

Maintain Your Good Health With an Annual Physical Exam

Eating right, regular exercise, and maintaining healthy habits are important components of your health – but so is a relationship with your doctor, whose role is to help you stay well.

The staff members at Meridian HealthCare are your advocates for whole body wellness, from mental health support to primary care services and acupuncture. Integrated healthcare is the future, and our health professionals are ready to work with you. Contact us today to schedule your appointment!


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