One of the questions we are frequently asked is: Should people go in for regular physical checkups if they're healthy? A number of doctors have questioned this need as well, but we both feel strongly that you should get an annual physical even if you are healthy.
All too often we learn about or even know someone who seemed to be "the picture of good health" and then suddenly died from an undiagnosed condition or were stricken with an ailment that went undetected because they hadn't had a recent screening. These types of conditions and ailments, while perhaps not being preventable, could at least have been diagnosed, treated and brought under control had that person gone in for a physical.
That yearly exam allows a doctor to make a record of a person's vital system functions and overall physical condition as of a particular date and becomes a way of tracking that person's health profile over a period of time. If there's nothing physically wrong with the patient on that date and something develops later, a time frame can be established. That can help a doctor determine the seriousness, based on the length of time that elapsed before it was detected. Also, there is the peace-of-mind factor to consider. We may already know we're in good health but, upon hearing it from a doctor following a series of tests and screenings, we tend to feel that much better about ourselves.
A physical exam includes checks of blood pressure, heart, lungs and abdomen, and may include such tests as baseline lipid profile, blood sugar level and others. Men 40 and older should have a rectal prostate exam every year, and women should have mammograms annually after 40. Additionally, women should receive a Pap smear at least once a year after they become sexually active, unless they have had a hysterectomy or more frequently if test results show abnormalities. After three normal Pap smears, it may be OK to have the test every two years. However, the uterus and ovaries should be examined annually for abnormal growths or tenderness. Both genders should have their eyes examined by a licensed optometrist at least every two years, especially after age 40.
One of the first steps in a physical is to measure weight, height and blood pressure. From these numbers, a doctor can determine whether or not the patient may be a candidate for diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) or other weight-related disorders, especially if the physician can compare those numbers to measurements taken at previous physicals. Diabetes and hypertension should be treated as soon as they are detected.
A baseline lipid profile, measuring both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides, should be performed every five years, especially after age 40, to determine risks of cardiovascular disease. Likewise for blood sugar levels, particularly in patients with family histories of diabetes or hyperglycemia. Post-menopausal women should have a thyroid test once every five years. A colonoscopy should be performed at age 50 to screen for polyps that can lead to colon cancer.
There are other tests your doctor may recommend during a physical, but these are the most basic and essential. Most important is that you have the screenings done each year. As we say so often: don't take chances when it comes to your health.