What Is an Annual Physical Exam? Your Yearly Checkup Explained.

Neeru Singh, MD
April 6, 2021
5 min

Too many Americans make the mistake of seeing their doctor only when there’s something wrong. But one of the best ways to maintain good health is to see your primary care physician regularly for a  physical exam — for most people, an annual exam is recommended. This is a key part of preventive care and can be instrumental in catching illnesses and diseases early, before they start to negatively impact your life. It’s estimated that right now six out of ten Americans are living with a chronic disease, some of which could have been avoided with preventive care. 

Even though annual physicals are important, barriers often prevent people from seeking them out. Cost may be a factor, and some people have so much fear surrounding a doctor’s visit that they reason they’re better off without the added anxiety.

To help minimize stress, let’s talk about what you can expect from your next routeinly scheduled  physical exam, and why it’s so important.

Why Do I Need a Yearly Physical?

A yearly physical is one of the best forms of preventive care available. Even if you feel perfectly healthy, your doctors will be able to run routine lab work and other diagnostic tests that can serve as valuable indicators for irregularities you wouldn’t be able to spot otherwise.

In addition to catching diseases and other chronic conditions early, an annual exam can help you maintain healthy habits like physical activity and a well-rounded diet. It also helps strengthen the rapport between doctor and patient, which can lead to more personalized care.

And although an annual physical is the most common option, establishing a routine with your primary care physician is what’s important. Your provider may determine that you need more or less frequent routine visits.  

What Happens During an Annual Physical Exam?

During your yearly physical, your doctor will start by asking you questions about your health over the past year. They’ll want to know how you’ve been feeling and whether you’ve had an injury or sought care for any illness, and they will likely ask about your sexual health and about habits like smoking and exercise. As you talk, your doctor will update your medical history with this information. It’s important to be honest with your doctor when they ask these questions. They’re not here to judge you, only to help you. 

After your doctor has taken your medical history, they’ll want to perform a physical examination. Although your personalized examination may vary a bit, they’ll likely check your vital signs (including blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature), as well as your general appearance, to ensure that you don't have any visible symptoms of illness. 

Here are some common examinations your doctor may want to conduct during your physical:  

Heart: Using a stethoscope, your doctor will listen to your heartbeat.

Ear, nose, and mouth: By physically examining the color and condition of your mouth, tonsils, inner ear, and nostrils, your doctor can determine whether these areas are healthy.

Head and neck: In addition to examining inside your nose, ears, and mouth, your doctor will check the exterior of your neck, including your lymph nodes and thyroid.

Abdomen: By tapping and gently palpating your abdomen, your doctor will evaluate your internal organs.

Joints and extremities: With a reflex hammer, your doctor will test your reflexes and then examine your arms and legs to check for problem areas.

Lungs: Using a stethoscope, your doctor will ask you to breathe in and out so they can evaluate the function of your lungs.

Depending on your body and your age, your doctor may also perform other physical examinations and tests, including examinations of your genitals, breasts, pelvis, and prostate.

Common Labs Your Doctor May Order During Your Annual Physical

After a physical exam, your doctor will likely order some routine lab work, so they can get more information on your hormone levels, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and more. This usually involves the patient giving a sample of blood, and it often involves giving a sample of urine.

From these samples, doctors can order a comprehensive metabolic panel, which helps evaluate the function of your kidneys and liver, and a lipid panel, which examines cholesterol.

How Long Does It Take for Bloodwork to Come Back?

Bloodwork and other lab tests can make some people nervous, but there’s no need to worry. Most bloodwork comes back within a few weeks and can be returned in as little as a few hours if the test is simple and the lab is able to process it quickly.

Following Up After Routine Lab Work

After your lab work is returned to your doctor, they’ll either ask you to come back in or give you a call to discuss the results. If any issues present themselves, they’ll devise a treatment plan or refer you to a specialist who can offer specialized care.

Make Your Yearly Physical and Routine Lab Work Easier at Carbon Health

Getting a yearly physical doesn’t need to be a hassle. At Carbon Health, we work diligently to ensure that appointments are easy to schedule, and that all information on your health, including ongoing care, is in one place.

Download the Carbon Health app today, or visit our website to learn more.

Neeru Singh, MD

Neeru Singh, MD, is a Medical Director at Carbon Health. As a primary care physician, she enjoys educating and guiding patients on important health decisions.