Annual Physical Examinations
Male Physical Exam
An annual physical exam for men might also include:
- Testicular exam: A doctor can check each testicle for lumps, tenderness, or changes in size. Most men with testicular cancer notice a growth before seeing a doctor.
Hernia exam: The famous "turn your head and cough" checks for a weakness in the abdominal wall between the intestines and scrotum.
Penis exam: A doctor might notice evidence of sexually transmitted infections such as warts or ulcers on the penis.
Prostate exam: Inserting a finger in the rectum lets a doctor feel the prostate for its size and any suspicious areas.
Female Physical Exam
A woman's annual exam might include:
Breast exam. Feeling for abnormal lumps may detect breast cancer or benign breast conditions. The doctor will also check the lymph nodes in the underarm area and look for visual abnormalities of the breasts.
- Pelvic exam: The pelvic exam allows examination of the vulva, vagina, and cervix. Routine checks for sexually transmitted infections are often done. A Pap test can screen for cervical cancer.
There are no standard laboratory tests during an annual physical. However, some doctors will order certain tests routinely:
- Complete blood count
- Chemistry panel
- Urinalysis (UA)
Unless symptoms already suggest a problem, however, these tests are unlikely to provide useful information.
A lipid panel (cholesterol test) is recommended every five years. Abnormal cholesterol levels increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Physicals Should Emphasize Prevention
The annual physical exam is a great opportunity to refocus your attention on prevention and screening:
- At age 50, it's time to begin regular screening for colorectal cancer. People with immediate family members with colorectal cancer may need to be screened before age 50.
- For some women, age 40 marks the time to begin annual mammogram screening for breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about possible benefits and risks to starting mammography before 50 years of age.
- Everyone should have their cholesterol (lipids) checked every five years after age 20, according to the American Heart Association.
Healthy behaviors work far better than medicine at preventing illness, and don't require a prescription:
- Do 30 minutes of brisk walking or other exercise, most days of the week. Your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer will fall dramatically.
- Eat a mostly plant-based diet, low in animal fats.
- Above all, don't smoke.
Do You Even Need An Annual Physical Exam?
The annual physical exam is beloved by many people and their doctors. But studies show that the actual exam isn't very helpful in discovering problems and may lead to unnecessary tests.
Leading doctors and medical groups have called the annual physical exam "not necessary" in generally healthy people.
Exercising, keeping a healthy weight, and not smoking are enough to keep most of us in good health, with or without an annual exam. Still, no one can argue with keeping up a good relationship with your doctor through regular visits. As long as you and your doctor are paying attention to prevention and your overall health, the details are up to you.