Pearl of the Month

My favorite physical exam pearls


I would like to start the new year off by returning to the past – when the physical exam was emphasized and utilized in decision making. I think a big reason that its use has diminished in recent years is due to the physical exam not having been emphasized in training.

For those seeking to increase their comfort with conducting the physical exam, below are several methods I have found helpful to use in practice.

Examining the pharynx

We were usually taught to ask the patient to say ahhh, with or without a nasty tongue depressor.

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Douglas S. Paauw

When I was on my pediatrics rotation, I was taught to ask the patients to roar like a lion, which always gave a nice look at their posterior pharynx. The kids also really liked doing this, but it might seem a little strange to ask adults to do this.

A technique I have found that works well with adults is to ask them to yawn. I have found that this get me a great look at the pharynx for about half of my patients.

Auscultatory percussion for pleural effusions

Guarino and colleagues described a technique that is easily mastered and very effective for determining the presence of pleural effusions.1 It involves placing the stethoscope 3 cm below the last rib in the mid clavicular line and tapping from the apex down to the last rib.

For patients without effusion, a sharp change to a loud percussion note will occur at the last rib.

If the patient has an effusion, the loud percussion note will start at the top of the effusion.

This method was remarkably successful at finding pleural effusions. In the study, Dr. Guarino found a sensitivity of 96% and a specificity of 100%.

Physical exam for anemia

Look at the nails and see if they look pale. How can we do this?

The first step is to know what your own hematocrit is. You can then compare the color of your nail to that of the patient.

If you have a normal hematocrit and the patient’s nail bed color is lighter than yours, the patient likely has anemia. If you do this frequently, you will get good at estimating hematocrit. This is especially important if you do not have labs readily available.

Another way to assess for anemia is to look at the color tint of the lower conjunctiva. The best way to look for this is to look at whether there is a generous amount of visible capillaries in the lower conjunctiva. Patients without anemia have a darker red color because of these vessels, whereas patients with anemia are a lighter pink.

Strobach and colleagues2 looked at both nail bed rubor and color tint of the lower conjunctiva and found that both reliably predicted presence and degree of anemia.


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