Physical exam

A physical exam is a routine test done by a doctor or nurse to check your overall health. It examines your body by looking, feeling and listening.

A physical exam may also be called a complete physical exam, a routine physical or a checkup.

Why a physical exam is done

A physical exam is often done as part of a regular checkup, but it can be done at any time. It may be done to:

  • check for possible diseases and medical conditions, including cancer
  • find medical issues that may become problems in the future
  • allow your doctor to notice and keep track of any changes in your physical health
  • check your health during and after cancer treatment
  • ensure you maintain a healthy lifestyle
  • help your doctor decide if more tests are needed

How a physical exam is done

A physical exam is usually done in a doctor’s office or an exam room in a medical clinic or hospital.

A health history is usually taken at the same time as the physical exam. A health history is a record of present symptoms, risk factors and all the medical events and problems a person has had in the past. The doctor or healthcare professional will ask you about:

  • past and current diseases, medical conditions and illnesses
  • surgeries you have had
  • immunizations you have had
  • medicines, vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies you are taking (prescription and over-the-counter drugs)
  • current signs and symptoms of diseases such as cancer
  • your lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, tobacco and alcohol use and sexual and reproductive history
  • your family history of cancer and other diseases

The physical exam includes a review of the person’s body systems that is tailored to their age. During a physical exam, your doctor may:

  • measure your height and weight
  • examine your skin and eyes
  • look into your nose, mouth, throat and ears
  • feel pulses in your neck, groin and feet
  • check your body’s reflexes
  • listen to your heart and lungs
  • take your blood pressure and pulse
  • feel lymph nodes in your neck, armpits or groin to check if they are enlarged
  • feel your abdomen to check for abnormalities or growths on organs such as the liver, spleen and kidneys

Depending on your age and sex, a physical exam may also include:

What happens after a physical exam

Your doctor will talk to you about the results of the physical exam and suggest anything that you should be doing differently. They may recommend more tests, procedures, follow-up care or treatment.

Special considerations for children

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

  • asking questions about their growth and development
  • measuring the size around their head (the circumference)
  • checking fine motor development, such as their ability to pick up small objects or tie shoes
  • checking gross motor development, such as being able to walk, climb stairs or jump

Preparing children before a test or procedure can help lower their anxiety, increase their cooperation and develop their coping skills. This includes explaining to children what will happen during the test, such as what they will see, feel and hear.

Tell toddlers and other young children what to expect during a physical exam. Examples of what the doctor may do include:

  • looking in the mouth, at the eyes and in the ears
  • listening to the chest
  • tapping or pressing on the tummy
  • looking at the genitals to check that they are healthy
  • tapping on the knees
  • looking at the feet

It can help to involve older children in preparing for a physical exam. Help them to gather information for the doctor, such as writing down any problems or questions they have.

Older children and teenagers may feel more comfortable choosing a male or female doctor.

Many teenagers prefer to keep parents or caregivers out of discussions about puberty, sexual feelings, weight, body image and relationships. Before the physical exam, find out if they want you or another adult to be a part of the visit.

Preparing a child for a physical exam depends on the age and experience of the child. Find out more about helping your child cope with tests and treatments.

Expert review and references

  • British Columbia Ministry of Health . Medical Tests: Medical History and Physical Examination for Colorectal Cancer . 2017 :
  • Chabner BA, Chabner Thompson E . Cancer diagnosis. Beers MH, Berkow R (eds.). Merck Manual Professional Edition. 2013:
  • Dollinger M, Ljung BM, Morita ET, Rosenbaum EH . How cancer is diagnosed. Ko AH, Dollinger M, Rosenbaum E. Everyone's Guide to Cancer Therapy: How Cancer is Diagnosed, Treated and Managed Day to Day. 5th ed. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2008: 2:17-30.
  • Fischbach FT, Fischbach MA. Fischbach's A Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests. 10th ed. Wolters Kluwer; 2018.
  • National Cancer Institute & National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Well-child visits. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute & National Library of Medicine; 2009.
  • Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER), National Cancer Institute. SEER Training Modules: History and Physical Exam.
  • Vogel WH . Diagnostic evaluation, classification and staging. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 8:166-197.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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