Most people only think to visit their primary care physician when they're sick. Checking in with your doctor when you're feeling fine and healthy probably doesn't feel like a priority, but it's an important part of maintaining your health and can help you feel more "in control" of your health.
Regular visits to your family doctor can be lifesaving. Tests and screenings can help identify problems early, before they become a bigger issue or even life-threatening, such as screening for pre-diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
As a nutrition counselor and clinical pharmacist, I work alongside the advice given to my clients by their primary care doctor to get a whole picture of their condition, understand their health concerns, and how we can work together towards their wellness goals.
In this article, we'll go over what you can expect at your annual physical and the tests you shouldn't miss at your next visit.
Who Needs An Annual Physical?
Everyone should regularly visit their primary care doctor. Young, healthy people may not need to visit the doctor every year for a head-to-toe physical exam, but it's important to maintain a relationship with your doctor. It will be up to you and your doctor to decide how frequently you should visit. They may ask you to visit more frequently depending on your age, health history, and condition.
It is more likely that you and your doctor will notice if something is a miss if you have a consistent historical data, rather than isolated data that is irregular over the years. The sooner that you catch the signs that something is presenting differently than it usually does, the better the chance of managing it effectively to have minimal interference with your life.
As we get older, we become more prone to health risks and injuries, and it's advised at around age 40 to schedule annual check-ups, even if you're feeling great.
What Tests Does An Annual Check-Up Include?
An annual physical exam with your doctor is an important part of preventative care to screen for risk factors and assess vital signs to measure your overall health. We'll go over some of the routine tests and the assessments you can expect at annual check-ups.
If you're someone who feels anxious about doctor visits, understanding what annual check-ups entail can help set your mind at ease and make you feel more comfortable at your appointment.
The more truthful information you can provide your doctor about your lifestyle habits (exercise, diet, smoking, drinking, mental health) and your family medical history that can put you at risk for certain diseases, the more thorough your doctor can be with advice and screening tests.
Before your exam, you should review your family history, your vaccine history and be prepared to ask questions if you have any health concerns.
Mental Health Screenings
Mental health illnesses are extremely common, more so now than ever before and affect roughly half of the American population at some point in their lives.
General practitioners should implement mental health screenings as part of the annual physical exam as our emotional health is closely linked to our physical wellbeing. If your doctor does not initiate the conversation don't be afraid to bring it up first. Take control of your health by asking for what you need.
Vital screenings include blood pressure checks, heart rate, and respiration, and temperature. Depending on your health history, your doctor may ask to check your blood pressure every year or more frequently to monitor the health of your heart.
For the physical portion of the exam, your doctor will check your skin for concerns and suspicious moles. They will also use tools to look in your nose, throat, ears, and eyes and listen to your breathing and heartbeat. They may also palpitate your abdomen and lymph node sites to feel for abnormalities.
Some physical exams involve testing your motor functions and reflexes to determine the health of your nervous system.
Men typically undergo a testicular exam at physicals, and prostate screenings start at the age of 50, but if you have a family history of prostate cancer, your doctor could recommend you start screening earlier.
Mammogram screening in women starts at 40 years old, but your doctor could recommend earlier screening if breast cancer runs in the family.
Important Lab Tests You Shouldn't Miss
A physical exam doesn't always tell the doctors the whole story about your health. At your annual physical, your doctor may request lab tests to check for any irregularities in your system, diagnose a condition, and monitor your treatment progress.
Let's go over some of the most common lab tests and what these tell you about your overall health.
1. Complete Blood Cell Count (CBC)
Blood comprises red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body. CBC can tell you a lot about your overall health and detect the early onset of health conditions, including infection, anemia, respiratory distress, kidney dysfunction, and immune system disorders.
2. Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
A comprehensive metabolic panel test is conducted from a sample of blood and indicates glucose levels, electrolytes, proteins, blood urea, and liver enzymes. This test gives doctors information about your chemical balance and how well your body converts food into energy (metabolism).
3. Glycohemoglobin Test (Glycated Hemoglobin)
The glycohemoglobin test is another blood test that measures the amount of glucose (sugar) bound to hemoglobin protein on the red blood cells. An increased count could indicate diabetes, pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, iron deficiency, and alcohol toxicity. Low counts could indicate chronic renal failure, sickle cell disease, anemia, or pregnancy.
4. Hepatitis C Antibody Test
Hepatitis C is a virus that attacks the liver. It may not always have symptoms, so it's important to get regular tests to start treatment if you are infected with the virus to avoid life-threatening symptoms.
5. Lipid Profile Test
A lipid profile or lipid panel test measures cholesterol in the blood to evaluate the risk of cardiovascular disease. A cholesterol check should be completed in your twenties and then annually once you turn 35.
6. Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) Test
The TSH is the most sensitive test for diagnosing thyroid disorders. The thyroid releases hormones that regulate metabolism, muscle and digestive function, and bone health.
7. Vitamin D Level Test
Vitamin D is a pro-hormone, which means it has no hormone activity itself but is converted to another compound in the body that regulates calcium and phosphate that maintain the health of muscles and bones. Vitamin D deficiency is very common.
If left untreated over time, it can lead to bone disorders, which is why it's important to get this tested at your annual physical exam.
The Takeaway: Book Your Annual Physical
It's important to maintain a consistent relationship with your doctor by keeping regular visits.
While most young, healthy people may not need to visit their doctor as frequently as every year, it's recommended that you visit your doctor for preventive check-ups when you reach a certain age. It can make all the difference in keeping you in line with your wellness goals and discovering health concerns before they get any worse.
If visiting your doctor makes you nervous, hopefully learning a little more about what a physical check-up involves and why the tests are important helps to put your mind at ease.