Fundamentals of Physical Examination

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Fundamentals of Physical Examination

Cara Denunzio and Albert J. Heuer

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

1. Describe the four components of the physical examination.

2. Explain the importance of reviewing the history of present illness before performing a physical examination.

3. Describe the significance of the following during examination of the head and neck:

a. Nasal flaring

b. Cyanosis

c. Pursed-lip breathing

d. Diaphoresis

e. Changes in pupillary size in response to light

f. Deviated tracheal position

g. Jugular venous distention

4. Identify the correct method for measuring jugular venous pressure and expected normal findings.

5. Locate the topographic position of the following:

a. Thoracic cage landmarks (suprasternal notch, sternal angle [angle of Louis], vertebral spinous processes [C7 and T1])

b. Lung fissures (oblique [major] and horizontal [minor])

c. Tracheal bifurcation anteriorly and posteriorly

d. Right and left diaphragm anteriorly and posteriorly

e. Lung borders

6. Define the following terms used to classify thoracic configuration during inspection of the chest:

a. Pectus carinatum

b. Pectus excavatum

c. Kyphosis

d. Scoliosis

e. Kyphoscoliosis

f. Barrel chest

g. Flail chest

7. Define the following terms used to describe breathing pattern during inspection of the chest:

a. Apnea

b. Biot breathing

c. Cheyne-Stokes breathing

d. Kussmaul breathing

e. Apneustic

f. Paradoxical breathing

8. Describe the breathing patterns associated with restrictive and obstructive lung disease.

9. Identify the muscles of inspiration.

10. Describe the clinical significance of accessory muscle use and retractions and bulging.

11. Define the following terms and state their significance:

a. Abdominal paradox

b. Respiratory alternans

c. Peripheral cyanosis

d. Central cyanosis

e. Hoover sign

12. Describe the clinical significance of peripheral versus central cyanosis.

13. List causes of increased and decreased tactile fremitus.

14. List causes of decreased thoracic expansion as assessed during chest palpation.

15. Describe subcutaneous emphysema and its clinical significance.

16. List causes of increased and decreased resonance during percussion of the lung.

17. Identify the four basic parts of a stethoscope and their uses.

18. Describe the proper technique for auscultation of the lungs.

19. Identify the four characteristics of breath sounds that should be evaluated during auscultation.

20. Define the following terms used to describe lung sounds and the mechanisms responsible for producing the sounds:

a. Adventitious

b. Tracheal

c. Bronchovesicular

d. Vesicular (normal)

e. Diminished/absent

f. Harsh/bronchial

21. Define the following terms used to describe abnormal lung sounds and the mechanisms responsible for producing the sounds:

a. Crackles

b. Rhonchi

c. Wheezes

d. Stridor

e. Pleural friction rub

22. Use qualifying adjectives to describe lung sounds and explain the importance of using these qualifying adjectives.

23. Describe the significance of the following auscultatory findings:

a. Early inspiratory crackles

b. Late inspiratory crackles

c. Monophonic wheezes

d. Polyphonic wheezes

e. Stridor

f. Late inspiratory crackles

g. Inspiratory and expiratory crackles

h. Pleural friction rub

24. Define bronchophony and its cause.

25. Identify the topographic location of the apex and base of the heart during examination of the precordium.

26. Identify the point of maximal impulse, its normal location, and the factors that may cause it to shift to the right or left.

27. Describe the best location for auscultating sounds produced by the aortic, pulmonic, mitral, and tricuspid valves.

28. Describe what produces the first (S1) and second (S2) heart sounds, which are normal, as well as the third (S3) and fourth (S4) heart sounds, which are typically not normal.

29. Describe what is meant by a gallop rhythm and what it signifies.

30. List the factors that increase or decrease the intensity of the heart sounds.

31. Describe the clinical significance of a loud P2 heard during auscultation of the heart.

32. Describe the factors that cause systolic and diastolic heart murmurs.

33. Define the term hepatomegaly and its significance in the cardiopulmonary patient.

34. Define the following terms and their significance during examination of the extremities:

a. Digital clubbing

b. Cyanosis

c. Pedal edema

d. Capillary refill

e. Peripheral skin temperature and turgor

Physical examination is the process of examining the patient for the physical signs of disease. It is an inexpensive way to obtain immediate and pertinent information about the patient’s health status. The four basic components of the physical examination are inspection, palpation, percussion, and auscultation.

The patient initially is examined to help the physician and other members of the patient care team determine the correct diagnosis and to establish the patient’s baseline clinical status. Once a tentative diagnosis is made, subsequent examinations are valuable in monitoring the patient’s hospital course and evaluating the results of treatment. Each examination should be modified according to the patient’s history and the purpose of the assessment. Through experience, the clinician learns which of the techniques described in this chapter should be used in any situation. Each examination should be performed in a quiet, well-lighted private setting, and the respiratory therapist (RT) or other clinician should avoid exposing the patient to unnecessary physical or emotional discomfort.

The skills described in this chapter are not difficult to learn; however, proficiency is attained only with practice. The beginner first should practice the skills on healthy persons to improve technique and, more important, to obtain an appreciation for normal variations. Abnormalities can be detected only by clinicians who have developed an understanding of normal body functions for comparison.

This chapter emphasizes the techniques of examination used in assessment of the patient with cardiopulmonary disease. Because cardiopulmonary disease may indirectly alter other body systems, examination of the whole patient is important. The techniques used in examination of the thorax and other body systems for the abnormalities often associated with respiratory disease are reviewed. The typical order in which the initial physical examination is performed and recorded is presented in Box 5-1. See Chapter 4 for a complete discussion of the initial impression and assessment of the vital signs.

A review of the patient’s history of present illness and past medical history before examination is helpful, especially if the RT or other clinician was not involved in acquiring the patient’s medical history. This review gives the patient care team insight into the expected physical examination findings and suggests the techniques to emphasize.

Examination of the Head and Neck

Head and Face

An examination of the head should first identify the patient’s facial expression. This may help determine whether the patient is in acute distress or is experiencing physical pain. The facial expression can also help evaluate alertness, mood, general character, and mental capacity. Nasal flaring is identified by observing the external nares flare outward during inhalation. This may occur in patients of any age but is most often seen in neonates and young children with respiratory distress. It suggests that an increase in the work of breathing is present. It may be seen in a large variety of clinical conditions, including upper airway obstruction (e.g., croup), bronchiolitis, pneumonia, and respiratory distress syndrome.

Cyanosis may be detected, especially around the lips and oral mucosa, when respiratory disease results in reduced oxygenation of the arterial blood. Cyanosis is a bluish cast to the skin that clinically may be difficult to detect, especially in a poorly lighted room, in patients with dark-pigmented skin, and in those with moderate to severe anemia. The presence of cyanosis is strong evidence that tissue oxygenation may be less than optimum; further investigation (e.g., arterial blood gas analysis) is indicated. The absence of cyanosis does not indicate that tissue oxygenation is adequate because a sufficient hemoglobin concentration must exist before cyanosis can be identified (see Inspection for Central Cyanosis).

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may use pursed-lip breathing during exhalation. This technique often is taught to patients and may even be used by patients who have not had instruction on its benefits. Some patients naturally begin to pucker their lips during exhalation to provide a slight resistance to the exhaled breath. This resistance provides a modest backpressure in the airways during exhalation and prevents their premature collapse. This exhalation technique alters the inspiratory-to-expiratory (I:E) ratio, extending expiratory time and thus allowing a more complete exhalation.

Excessive sweating by the patient is known as diaphoresis. It usually occurs at many sites in the body at the same time but is often first appreciated during inspection of the patient’s face. It is a common finding in patients in acute respiratory distress and in those having severe pain. It also may be seen with exercise, eating spicy foods, fever, menopause, and other scenarios. Diaphoresis is also common in patients experiencing a myocardial infarction. For this reason, diaphoresis should always be taken seriously especially in the patient at risk for heart disease.


The pupillary reflexes are evaluated as part of the neurologic examination. Cranial nerves II and III must be intact for normal pupillary reflexes to be present. If the pupils are equal in size, round, and reactive to light and accommodation, the physician may simply write PERRLA (pupils equal, round, reactive to light and accommodation) in the patient’s chart. Head trauma, tumors, central nervous system disease, and certain medications can cause abnormal findings. Brain death, catecholamines, and atropine can cause the pupils to become dilated and fixed (mydriasis). Atropine is a common medication used during cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and its administration minimizes the use of assessing pupillary reflexes as a measure of the patient’s neurologic status. Parasympathetic stimulants and opiates can cause pinpoint pupils (miosis). Examination of the pupillary reflexes is also discussed in Chapter 6.

Examination of the eyelids is useful when the RT or other clinician suspects disease of the cranial nerves. Drooping of the upper lid (ptosis) may be an early sign of disease involving the third cranial nerve. Congenital defects, cranial tumors, and neuromuscular diseases, such as myasthenia gravis, may cause ptosis. Ptosis may be an early warning sign of respiratory failure when a descending neuromuscular disease, such as myasthenia gravis, is occurring. Neuromuscular diseases affecting the cranial nerves also may result in blurred or double vision (diplopia) and involuntary, cyclic movement of the eyeballs known as nystagmus.


Inspection and palpation of the neck are of value in determining the tracheal position, estimating the jugular venous pressure (JVP), and identifying whether the patient’s accessory muscles are in use. Normally, the trachea is located centrally in the neck when the patient is facing forward. The midline of the neck can be identified by palpation of the suprasternal notch at the base of the anterior neck. The midline of the trachea should be directly below the center of the suprasternal notch.

The trachea may be shifted from midline with atelectasis, pneumothorax, pleural effusion, or lung tumors. In instances of atelectasis or lung resection (removal of one part of a lung), the trachea shifts toward the affected side as it moves toward the side with reduced lung volumes. Conversely, the trachea often shifts (deviates) away from a tension pneumothorax, pleural effusion, or lung tumor because of the effect that excessive air, fluid, or tissue outside of the lung has on pushing the trachea away from the affected side toward the unaffected side. It should also be noted that abnormalities in the lower lung fields may not shift the trachea unless the defect is severe.

The JVP is estimated by examining the level of the column of blood in the jugular veins. JVP reflects the volume and pressure of the venous blood in the right side of the heart. Both the internal and external jugular veins can be assessed, although the internal jugular is most reliable. Persons with an obese or muscular neck may not have visible neck veins, even with distention.

In the supine position, the neck veins of a healthy person are full. When the head of the bed is elevated gradually to a 45-degree angle from horizontal, the level of the column of blood descends to a point no more than a few centimeters above the clavicle with normal venous pressure. With elevated venous pressure, the neck veins may be distended as high as the angle of the jaw, even when the patient is sitting upright (Fig. 5-1). The degree of venous distention can be estimated by measuring the distance the veins are distended above the sternal angle. The sternal angle has been chosen universally because its distance above the right atrium remains nearly constant (approximately 5 cm) in all positions. With the head of the bed elevated to a 45-degree angle, venous distention greater than 3 to 4 cm above the sternal angle is abnormal (Fig. 5-2).

Exact quantification of the jugular pressure in terms of centimeters above the sternal angle is difficult and probably exceeds the accuracy needed for most observers. A simple grading scale of normal, increased, and markedly increased is acceptable.

The level of jugular venous distention may vary with breathing. During inhalation, the level of the column of blood may descend toward the thorax and return to the previous position with exhalation. For this reason, JVP should always be estimated at the end of exhalation.

The most common cause of jugular venous distention is right-sided heart failure. Right-sided heart failure may occur secondary to left-sided heart failure or chronic hypoxemia. Hypoxemia initiates pulmonary vasoconstriction and increases the resistance to blood flow through the pulmonary vasculature, increasing the workload of the right ventricle. Persistent lung disease with hypoxemia may result in right-sided heart failure and jugular venous distention. Jugular venous distention also may occur with hypervolemia and when the venous return to the right atrium is obstructed by tumors in the mediastinum.

Contraction of the sternocleidomastoid muscle in the neck is an indication that the patient’s work of breathing is increased. It is a common finding in patients with airway obstruction and is discussed in the section on chest inspection.

The attending physician often examines the patient’s neck for enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy) during the initial examination. Lymphadenopathy is a common finding in patients with respiratory infections, and the lymph nodes usually are tender to palpation in this situation. Nontender lymphadenopathy may be caused by malignancy or HIV.

The carotid pulse in the neck is palpated to evaluate the strength of the left ventricular contraction and the condition of the aortic valve. Heart disease that results in poor left ventricular contraction causes the carotid pulse to become weak. Stenosis of the aortic valve also causes a weak carotid pulse along with a systolic murmur (see Examination of the Precordium). An incompetent aortic valve that causes regurgitation of blood back into the left ventricle results in a pulse that rises and descends sharply. This is called a water-hammer pulse. The left and right carotid pulses must not be palpated simultaneously because this may significantly reduce blood flow to the brain.

The strength of the pulse at any location is described on a scale of 0 to 4, as follows:

Lung Topography

Understanding how the lungs are situated within the chest is vital when preparing to perform an accurate physical assessment of the respiratory system. Topographic (surface) landmarks of the chest are helpful in identifying the location of underlying structures and describing the location of abnormalities.

Imaginary Lines

On the anterior chest, the midsternal line divides the chest into two equal halves. The left and right midclavicular lines parallel the midsternal line and are drawn through the midpoints of the left and right clavicles, respectively (Fig. 5-3).

The midaxillary line divides the lateral chest into two equal halves. The anterior axillary line parallels the midaxillary line and is situated along the anterolateral chest. The posterior axillary line is also parallel to the midaxillary line and is located in the posterolateral chest (Fig. 5-4).

Three imaginary vertical lines are drawn on the posterior chest. The midspinal line divides the posterior chest into two equal halves. The left and right midscapular lines parallel the midspinal line and pass through the inferior angles of the scapulae in the relaxed upright patient (Fig. 5-5).

Thoracic Cage Landmarks

On the anterior chest, the suprasternal notch is located at the top of the manubrium and can be located by palpation of the depression at the base of the neck. Directly below this notch is the sternal angle, which is also called the angle of Louis. The sternal angle can be identified by palpating down from the suprasternal notch until the ridge between the gladiolus and the manubrium is identified. This important landmark is visible in most persons. The second rib articulates with the top of the gladiolus at this point (Fig. 5-6). Rib identification on the anterior chest can now be accomplished with this as a reference point. It is recommended that ribs be counted to the side of the sternum because individual costal cartilages that attach the ribs to the sternum are not identified as easily near the sternum.

On the posterior chest, the spinous processes of the vertebrae are useful landmarks (Fig. 5-7). The spinous process of the seventh cervical vertebra (C7) usually can be identified by having the patient extend the head and neck forward and slightly down. At the base of the neck, the most prominent spinous process that can be visualized and palpated is C7. The spinous process just below C7 belongs to the first thoracic vertebra (T1). The scapular borders also can be useful landmarks on the posterior chest. With the patient’s arms raised above the head, the inferior border of the scapula lies almost directly over the oblique fissure that separates the upper from the lower lobes on the posterior chest.

Lung Fissures

Between the lobes of the lungs are the interlobar fissures. Both lungs have an oblique fissure that begins on the anterior chest at approximately the sixth rib at the midclavicular line. This fissure extends laterally and upward until it crosses the fifth rib on the lateral chest in the midaxillary line and continues on the posterior chest to approximately T3 (Figs. 5-8 and 5-9).

The right lung also has a horizontal fissure that separates the right upper lobe from the right middle lobe. The horizontal fissure extends from the fourth rib at the sternal border around to the fifth rib at the midaxillary line. The left lung rarely has a horizontal fissure.

Examination of the Thorax


Visual examination of the chest is of value in assessing the thoracic configuration and the pattern and effort of breathing. For inspection to be adequate, the room must be well lighted, and the patient should be sitting upright. If the patient is too ill to sit up, the clinician must roll the patient carefully onto one side to examine the posterior chest. Male patients should be stripped to the waist. Female patients should be given some type of drape to prevent possible embarrassment from exposure of their breasts.

Thoracic Configuration

The normal adult thorax has an anteroposterior diameter less than the transverse (side-to-side) diameter. The anteroposterior diameter normally increases gradually with age and prematurely increases in patients with COPD. This abnormal increase in anteroposterior diameter is called a barrel chest and is commonly seen in patients with emphysema due to hypertrophy of the accessory muscles of breathing and chronic hyperinflation of the lungs. When the anteroposterior diameter increases, the ribs lose their normal 45-degree angle of slope in relation to the spine and become horizontal (Fig. 5-10). Other abnormalities of the thoracic configuration include the following:

It should be noted that several of the above abnormalities, depending on their severity, can result in a restrictive lung defect. In particular, the abnormalities of pectus excavatum and kyphoscoliosis may produce such a restriction. Severe trauma to the chest cage can result in fractures of the ribs and sternum. Abnormal configuration of the thoracic cage may result, especially if multiple ribs are broken. A section of the rib cage may move paradoxically with breathing when multiple ribs are fractured at more than one site. The paradoxical motion is seen as a sinking inward of the affected region with each spontaneous inspiratory effort and an outward movement with subsequent exhalation. This paradoxical motion of the affected rib cage is called flail chest.

Breathing Pattern and Effort

The healthy adult at rest has a consistent rate and rhythm of ventilation. The diaphragm and the intercostal muscles are the primary muscles of ventilation, actively working to increase the thoracic cavity dimension during normal inspiratory effort. During normal breathing at rest, the diaphragm performs the majority of the work of breathing. The effort of breathing is minimum on inhalation and passive on exhalation. Men typically breathe with the diaphragm, causing the stomach to move slightly outward during inhalation. Women tend to use a combination of intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, producing more chest wall movement than men. Table 5-1 describes the abnormal patterns of breathing. See Chapter 4, Table 4-4 for further descriptions of terms commonly used to describe breathing rates associated with patterns of breathing.


Abnormal Breathing Patterns

Pattern Characteristics Causes
Tachypnea Rapid rate of breathing Loss of lung volume, arterial hypoxemia, metabolic acidosis
Apnea No breathing Cardiac arrest
Biot Irregular breathing with long periods of apnea Increased intracranial pressure
Cheyne-Stokes Irregular type of breathing; breaths increase and decrease in depth and rate with periods of apnea Diseases of central nervous system, congestive heart failure
Kussmaul Deep and fast Metabolic acidosis
Apneustic Prolonged inhalation Brain damage
Paradoxical Injured portion of chest wall area moves in the opposite direction to the rest of the chest Chest trauma
Abdominal paradox Contraction of accessory muscles to aid inspiratory effort; diaphragm is pulled upward and abdomen sinks inward during inspiration Fatigue of diaphragm, paralysis

Additional muscles of ventilation, called accessory muscles, are also slightly active during normal, resting breathing. When ventilatory demands increase, these accessory muscles become more active in assisting the primary muscles of ventilation in the work of breathing. The predominant accessory muscles include the intercostal, scalene, sternocleidomastoid, pectoral, trapezius, and abdominal wall muscles. The accessory muscles of inspiration specifically include the external intercostals, scalene, sternocleidomastoids, trapezius, pectoralis minor, and pectoralis major. Changes in the patient’s breathing pattern can provide important clues to the type of respiratory problem present. Patients with restrictive lung disease (reduced lung volumes) typically breathe with a rapid (tachypnea) and shallow (hypopnea) pattern (see Chapter 4, Table 4-4 for further discussion of breathing rate and pattern terminology). The more lung volume lost, the greater increase in the respiratory rate. Acute obstruction of intrathoracic airways, as occurs with asthma, results in a prolonged exhalation time. The approximate I:E ratio can be determined by timing the two phases of breathing. Normal I:E ratio is approximately 1:2. With more severe cases of airway obstruction, the I:E ratio may be 1:3, 1:4, or even longer at 1:5 or greater. Acute upper airway obstruction, as occurs with croup or epiglottitis, often results in a prolonged inspiratory time.

Any respiratory abnormalities that increase the work of breathing may cause the accessory muscles of breathing (most visibly the scalenes and sternocleidomastoids) to become active during breathing at rest. This is common in acute and chronic diffuse airway obstruction, acute upper airway obstruction, and disorders that reduce lung compliance such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Significant increases in the effort of breathing cause large swings in pleural pressure. As a result, the skin overlying the chest cage may sink inward between the ribs during inspiration and bulge outward during exhalation, when the work of breathing is increased. Inward depression of the skin during inspiration is known as retractions. Retractions may be seen between ribs (intercostal), below the ribs (subcostal), or above the clavicles (supraclavicular).

The opposite movement of the skin during exhalation is known as bulging. Obesity and muscular chest walls prevent retractions and bulging from occurring unless the abnormality is severe.

The diaphragm may be nonfunctional in patients with spinal injuries or neuromuscular disease and severely limited in patients with COPD. When this occurs, the accessory muscles of breathing become active, even at rest. The respiratory accessory muscles may also become active during acute airway obstruction. However, its absence does not rule out the possibility that severe airway obstruction is present.

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