Physical examination

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The physical examination, also clinical examination, in medicine is the art of acquiring information while looking fancy. The findings usually don't make the diagnosis. The history is often far more important.

The bit below is far from comprehensive and doesn't even think of pretending to be that.

This was written to review the physical exam and serve as a template for the examination at autopsy... where one sees a lot more 'cause the subject doesn't have to be in one piece after one is done.

Thorax

Respiratory

Inspection

Face & neck:

  • Respiratory distress:
    • Purse-lip breathing.
    • Nasal flaring.
    • Cyanosis - lips, lingual frenulum.
  • Trachea midline?
  • Accessory neck muscle use.

Peripheral:

  • Clubbing (lung causes DDx: abscess, bronchiectasis, cancer, decreased O2, empyema, fibrosing alveolitis).
    • Clubbing should be viewed with suspicion in patient with COPD, as it should not be seen in the context of pure emphysema.[1] Clubbing in COPD is relatively rare; thus, in the context of COPD and smoking it should prompt a search for an occult lung cancer.[2]
  • Cyanosis - fingernails.

Chest:

  • Respiratory distress:
    • Intercostal indrawing.
    • Diaphragmatic paradox.

Chest wall deformities:

  • Kyphosis.
  • Scoliosis.
  • Barrel chest (seen in emphysema).
  • Pectus excavatum.
  • Pectus carinatum.

In trauma:

  • Fail chest.
  • Sucking chest wound.

Palpation

  • Tactile fremitus (boy-o-boy or 99).

In trauma:

  • Fail chest/broken ribs.
  • Subcutaneous emphysema (popcorn popping sound).

Percussion

  • Don't forget the apices.

Auscultation

  • Bronchial at trachea.
  • Vesicular at base.
  • No wheeze. No stridor (upper airway). No crackles.

Vocal fremitus

  • Egophony
  • Whisper pectoriloquy

Extras

  • Calf tenderness - think about DVT/PE.
  • Homans' sign - calf pain on dorsiflexion (suggestive of DVT).
  • Vitals - may help figure-out tumour vs. infection.

Precordial

Inspection

  • Masses, scars, lesions, signs of trauma/previous surgery.

Palpation

Point of maximal impulse (mnemonic SALID):

  • Size - should be less than 2-3 cm.
  • Amplitude - should be tapping.
  • Location - 5 ICS MCL.
  • Impulse - monophasic (biphasic abnormal).
  • Duration - <2/3 of systole.

Chest wall:

  • Trills (at valve locations).
  • Heaves with heel of hand.

Auscultation

  • S1, S2 normal.
  • No S3. No S4. No murmurs. No rub.

Head & neck

Neck nodes

  • Submental.
  • Submandibular.
  • (Jugulodigastric).
  • Pre-auricular.
  • Post-auricular.
  • Occipital.
  • Posterior cervical.
  • Superficial cervical.
  • Deep cervical.
  • Supraclavicular.
  • Intraclavicular.

Thyroid

Inspection

  • Masses, scars, lesions, signs of previous surgery or trauma.
  • Swell/enlargement.
  • Get patient to swallow.

Eyes:

  • Exophthalmos.
  • Lid retraction.
  • Lid lag.

Skin:

  • Sweaty (hyper)/dry (hypo).

Hair:

  • Loss (hyper).

Periph.

  • Tremor (hyper).
  • Tibial myxedema.

Behavioural:

  • Restlessness (hyper).

Palpation

  • Use cricoid cartilage as a landmark.
  • Palpate both lobes & isthmus - get patient to swallow whilst doing this.

Percussion

  • None.

Auscultation

  • Listen for bruit - get patient to hold their breath.

Extras

  • Reflexes (hyperactive in hyper, hypoactive in hypo).
  • Vitals

Abdomen

General abdominal exam

Note that the order is different; it is not IPPA'. Auscultation is moved-up so one doesn't have a disturbed abdomen.

One should palpate the painful area last (for practical and psychological reasons).

Inspection

  • Masses, scars, lesions, signs of trauma & previous surgery.
  • Distension.
  • Bulging flanks.
  • Ecchymoses:
    • Grey-Turner sign (flank).
    • Cullen's sign (periumbilical).
  • +/-Stigmata of liver disease.

Auscultation

  • Listen for bowel sounds - should listen for 1 minute to r/o movement.
    • Hyperactive in mechanical obstruction.
    • Tinkling in ileus.

Percussion

  • Hyperresonance - upstream in mechanical obstruction.
  • Dull - mass?

Palpation

  • Soft/light... then deep.
  • All four quadrants + periumbilical region.

Routine special

  • Rectal examination with digital rectal exam and FOBT.
  • Testicular exam/exam for hernias - particularly important in the context of small bowel obstruction (SBO).
  • Murphy's sign (for cholecystitis) - stops inspiration when hand in RUQ (below gallbladder) - contacts the inflammed gallbladder.

Appendix

  • Obturator sign - pain with internal rotation.
  • Psoas sign - patient doesn't straighten leg (Px with extension when hip flexed).
  • Rovsing sign - Px when poking at LLQ.
  • Rebound tenderness - Px with quick letting go after deep palpation (hurts like hell... should warn the patient).

Liver

Inspection

Rule of fives.

Head - mnemonic FEATS:

  • Fetor hepaticus (awful smell from mouth).
  • Encephalopathy.
  • Asterixis (mad flapper).
  • Temporal wasting.
  • Scleral icterus.

Hands:

Body:

  • Ecchymoses (Grey-Turner sign, Cullen's sign).
  • Spider nevi.
  • Bulging flanks.
  • Testicular atropy.
  • Jaundice.

Percussion

Liver span:

  • 10-12 cm in males.
  • 8-10 cm in females.

Palpation

  • RLQ MCL to RUQ - look for liver edge.

Extras

  • Should do spleen too... and rest of abdomen.

Spleen

Inspection

Percussion

  • Castell's sign - most sensitive.
    • 10 ICS ACL
    • Positive if dullness on inspiration.

Palpation

  • RLQ to LUQ -- the spleen 'grows' (hypertrophies) down and to right side.

Pelvic examination

External

  • Mass, scars, lesions, signs of trauma & previous surgery.
  • Ulceration.
  • Vaginal discharge/bleeding.
  • Lymphadenopathy.

Internal

Speculum:

  • Vaginal lesions.
  • Cervical lesions - discharge, ulcerations.
  • Do swabs.
  • Do Pap test if none recent.

Bimanual:

  • Uterine masses.
  • Adnexal masses.
  • Tenderness - adnexal.
  • Cervical motion tenderness (think PID, appendicitis).

Neurologic

Cranial nerves

Mnemonics:

  • Oh Once One Takes The Anatomy Final Very Good Vacations Are Heavenly.
  • Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl's Vagina And Hymen.

List:

  • Olfactory (I).
  • Optic (II).
  • Oculomotor (III).
  • Trochlear (IV).
  • Trigeminal (V).
  • Abducens (VI).
  • Facial (VII).
  • Vestibulocochlear (VIII).
  • Glossopharyngeal (IX).
  • Vagus (X).
  • Accessory (XI).
  • Hypoglossal (XII).

Integrated quick exam

  • CN II: visual acuity, visual fields.
  • CN II/III: pupils (round, regular and equal), no ptosis, papillary reflex (direct and consentual).
  • CN III, IV, VI: smooth pursuit (H pattern), check for gaze nystagmus, check saccadic eye movement.
  • CN II: fundoscopy.
  • CN V (sensation): light touch V1, V2, V3.
  • CN V (motor) - V3: open/close, lateral excursion, tense.
  • CN VII (motor): frontalis, orbicularis occuli, puff cheeks, orbicularis oris, show teeth, whistle.
  • mention corneal reflex (V1-VII).


  • CN IX, X: "Ah" - palate symmetry.
  • CN XI: sternomastoid - strength.
  • CN XII: stick-out tongue.

Skipped:

  • Optokinetic nystagmus - CN III, IV, VI.
  • CN VII: skip taste ant. 2/3, parotid gl., lacrimal gl., stapedius m.
  • Skip CN VIII entirely.

Screening neurologic exam

Adapted from: [1].

Mental status:

  • Obtained during history.

CN:

  • Visual acuity, visual fields, fundoscopy.
  • Pupils (round, regular, equal), ptosis, pupillary reflex, accomodation (converge & constrict).
  • Smooth pursuit, gaze nystagmus, saccadic eye movements.
  • Face sensation (V1-V3).
  • Face motor VII (eyebrows, eyes, puff cheeks, close mouth, show teeth, whistle).
  • CN IX, X: "Ah" - observe palatal mvt.
  • CN XI: sternocleidomastoid - strength.
  • CN XII: stick-out tongue.

Motor:

  • Muscle bulk & symmetry.
  • Tone.
  • Strength.
  • Reflexes.

Sensory:

  • Each limb one area:
    • Spinothalamic pathway test - light touch (could also use temp., pain).
    • Dorsal column pathway test - vibration (could also use proprioception).

Coordination:

  • upper extremity - rapid alternating movements, finger-to-nose.
  • lower extremity - heel walking, toe walking, heel-to-knee-to-shin.

Focused upper extremity exam

Light touch: T1 (pinky), C8 (ring finger), C7 (index finger), C6 (thumb). Vibration: T1 (pinky), C8 (ring finger), C7 (index finger), C6 (thumb).

Reflexes:

  • Biceps C5 (C5, C6).
  • Brachioradialis C6 (C5, C6) - brachioradialis is the beer drinker muscle... ergo 6... cause there are 6 beers in a pack.
  • Triceps C7 (C6, C7).
  • Finger extensors C7.
  • Finger flexors C8 (C7-T1).

Motor:

  • Biceps C5.
  • Brachioradialis C6.
  • Triceps C7.
  • Finger extensors C7.
  • Finger flexors C8.
  • Thumb abduction and adduction T1.

Peripheral vascular exam

Appearance:

  • Edema.
  • Erythema.
  • Hair loss.
  • Ulcers - bottom (more likely arterial).
  • Gangrene.
  • Scars.

Feel:

  • Pulses:
    • Femoral artery pulse - femoral triangle.
    • Popliteal artery pulse - behind the knee.
    • Posterior tibial artery pulse - inferior and posterior to the medial malleolus.
    • Doralis pedis pulse - on dorsal surface of the foot.

See also

References