General physical exam: what exactly do the doctors use the stethoscope for?


Well, simply put, it is just a listening device used in the general physical exam. It basically has three parts. The bulb like disk on one end that goes on to your body surface is called the chest piece. It is designed to pick up sound waves that are transmitted from your internal organs to the surface of your body during the general physical exam. It may have an adjustable part that allows selective transmission of either the higher frequency or the lower frequency sound depending upon the organ that the MD doctor is listening to while performing the general physical exam. The chest piece is connected by the tubing with the ear tubes and the ear piece. The rubber like tubing works to transfer the sound waves captured by the chest piece to the MD doctor’s ears.The length of the tubing varies depending upon the type of the stethoscope. The longer tube allows the MD doctor to keep his ears and his head at a comfortable distance from the patient’s body but it results in some loss of sound quality. The shorter and thicker tubing allows for more sound to be transmitted and results in a better hearing experience  but the MD doctor has to lean forward in an uncomfortable position to listen to the patient’s chest. So, what kinds of sounds do the MD doctors listen to and what they make of these sounds? You may have occasionally heard someone’s chest rattle. If not, you may have heard your stomach gurgle especially when you are hungry. These are exactly the types of sounds that the doctors listen to while performing the general physical exam. While some exceptionally loud sounds are heard by the human ears, most other body sounds are not. The MD doctor uses the stethoscope to listen to such sounds. The doctor can listen to any organ that makes a sound. Normally the organs that make sound have moving parts. The heart and the lungs are good examples of body parts that have moving parts. The heart is always beating and has four different chambers with valves that are moving with each heart-beat. The MD doctor can listen to these sounds by placing the stethoscope at different predefined parts of your chest.

general physical examListening to your body sounds is just a part of the process called general physical exam. General Physical exam is an important part of a patient’s medical evaluation. It comes after the history taking. You learned about history taking under the topic “How does the doctor find out what is wrong with you?” General Physical exam is the process in which the MD doctors attempt to learn about the state of your internal organs by using all their five senses. They look, listen, tap, push and smell different parts of your body to get clues about what is going on with your organs. The details of the process of the general physical exam as well as it’s significance and limitations are described in a separate chapter in the book. After reading it, you will know what exactly the MD doctor is doing when he starts to push on your belly during your next general physical exam.