Why You Need an Annual Physical (and What to Expect)

Here’s why it’s so important and how you can prepare
importance of an annual physical

Why go see the doctor when nothing is wrong? A physical exam serves as a wellness check for you to touch base with your doctor, address any health issues and talk about preventative measures for your future.

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“It’s a chance for the doctor to reconnect with their patient and for you, the patient, to reconnect with your physician,” says family medicine physician Daniel Allan, MD. He talks about the importance of a physical exam, including how often you need one and what to expect.

Why physicals are so important

Have a nagging health question that doesn’t rise to the level of needing its own appointment? Your physical exam is the perfect time to ask your doctor anything that’s been on your mind.

“it’s a chance to come in and and bring up things that are bugging you,” Dr. Allan says, “whether it’s lingering health issue or something you read that you want your doctor’s opinion on.”

Physical exams provide an opportunity to check in on your overall health, which can also help you forge a relationship with your primary care provider. And that comes in handy for the times when something is wrong.

How often you need a physical

Opinions vary, even among medical professionals, about how often you need a physical exam.

If you’re healthy and in your 20s and 30s, Dr. Allan says you can come in every two years or so. Beyond that, though, you should make it an annual habit.

“Getting a physical should be a regular occurrence as you hit age 40 and up,” he advises.

How to prepare for your physical

Taking a few simple steps to ready yourself for your physical will ensure that you get the most out of your appointment.

  • Write down questions: It’s all too easy to forget what you wanted to ask your doctor by the time you get into the office. Dr. Allan suggests writing it all down ahead of time so you’re sure to raise all of your concerns.
  • Make your other appointments first: If you know you need blood work, a mammogram, or any other health maintenance-related screenings, Dr. Allan suggests having them done in advance of your physical. Be sure to bring those results along with you so you and your doctor can review them in person.
  • Catalog your medical history: Has anything changed since your last physical? If you’ve received new diagnoses, gotten a vaccine, had surgery, or have any other recent health information to share, this is the time to tell your doctor. “Your physician is like the quarterback,” Dr. Allan says. “We’re the ones who know where everybody is on the field and what everybody’s supposed to be doing,”
  • Know your medications: Your doctor needs to know what you’re taking, even if it was prescribed by someone else or purchased over the counter — so bring a list of your medications, supplements and vitamins, or simply snap photos of the labels. “Even if it’s something that you don’t think is important, your doctor really needs to know about it,” Dr. Allan reiterates.
  • Bring any additional health data: If you keep a food log, use a symptom tracker, chart your blood pressure or keep track of anything else related to your health, bring that information to share with your doctor.

What happens at a physical exam

Each appointment is unique, depending on the doctor and the patient.

“We do a basic exam on everybody,” Dr. Allan says, “but there are some specific things we adjust depending on each patient.” He explains what you can likely expect from your annual physical.

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Vital signs

A medical professional will weigh you, measure you, and take your blood pressure and pulse — sometimes more than once, just to be sure.

“If someone has a history of abnormal blood pressure, I’ll sometimes check it again, even after the nurse has already done it,” Dr. Allan says, “because it’s just that important.”

Review of each organ system

Get ready to answer your doctor’s questions about your body — and though the questions may seem random, trust that they’re being asked with intention.

“I like to go through each organ system and ask questions that may trigger reminders and responses: Are you having any chest pains or shortness of breath? What color is your urine? Do you have any unusual moles?” Dr. Allan says. “Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot. I do have that!’”

Head-to-toe exam

During your general exam, your doctor will likely:

  • Take your pulse.
  • Listen to your heart and lungs.
  • Check your mouth and ears.
  • Feel your lymph nodes.
  • Examine your skin.
  • Look for swelling in your extremities.
  • Conduct a breast exam.

They may do more, too, depending on your age and medical history.

“We tailor the exam to the patient,” Dr. Allan says. “For example, if my patient is middle-aged or older, I’ll listen to their carotid artery for stenosis, or a buildup of plaque — which I wouldn’t do for a healthy 21-year-old who’s getting a pre-employment physical.”

Questions your doctor might ask

This appointment is a chance to open the lines of communication with your doctor, so they’re likely to ask some questions designed to get you to open up.  

“I start with an open-ended approach to give patients a chance to voice any issues, concerns or questions they have so they feel like they have an opportunity to get out in the open anything they want to discuss,” Dr. Allan says.

While not all doctors take this approach, you should still expect to touch on some of the following questions and topics:

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Substance use and abuse

It may feel tempting to fudge the truth, but your doctor isn’t here to judge. Be honest with your medical provider about alcohol and tobacco use, including frequency and any perceived problems.

Family history

Getting a physical is, in part, about helping you prepare for a healthy future — which includes keeping an eye on your genetic predisposition to medical issues. If your mother is dealing with high cholesterol or your brother was recently diagnosed with cancer, let your provider know.

“I keep a problem list for each patient, where I keep track of family health issues,” Dr. Allan says. “That way, when the patient comes in, we can look through that list and address anything we know we need to keep an eye on.”

General life updates

To get a feel for your mental health status, your doctor may ask questions like “Are you still working?” and “How has your family been?” These questions will help the doctor gauge your current stage of life and mental state — including whether you have the capacity to make major health changes, if needed.

“The answers to these questions give me a sense of my patient’s ability to invoke any changes to their own health right now,” Dr. Allan says. “For example, if I learn that a patient is currently taking care of his dying mother, I know he’s probably not going to be able to manage any other major changes at the moment.”

What’s next?

Your doctor may give you guidance for healthy living as it relates to any issues you’re experiencing. And your after-visit summary (typically available both in print and online, if you use a system such as MyChart) will recap what you’ve discussed during the visit, including:

  • Health goals and expectations.
  • Tips and guidance related to your health concerns.
  • Newly prescribed medications.
  • Necessary vaccines, labs and referrals.
  • When you should return for your next appointment.

Your doctor will keep track of everything you discuss and keep record of it so they have an overall picture of your health — not just right now but in the future. That means that what you discuss at this appointment may well come up at your next one.

“Even if a patient isn’t experiencing current, active health issues, the physical exam gives us an opportunity to determine what might happen in the future,” Dr. Allen says, “so we can prepare for it and address it later.”

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