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 and nipples.
- 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 and HPV test can screen for cervical cancer and help assess risk.
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 screening lipid panel (cholesterol test) is recommended every 4 to 6 years, according to the American Heart Association. Your doctor might check more frequently if you have risk factors for heart disease. Abnormal cholesterol levels increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes.
If you are overweight or have any risk factors for diabetes, your blood sugar will likely be checked. Otherwise, a test for diabetes may be done starting at age 45. Your doctor will decide how often you need it to be checked.
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 or other risk factors. 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 age 50.
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 (or about 150 minutes a week). And add in some strength training at least twice a week. Your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer will fall dramatically.
- Eat a mostly plant-based diet, low in animal fats.
- Above all, don't smoke.