So your New Year's resolution will be to finally go for your "annual" physical. It's been a couple of years - at least. What's the doctor going to do? There are so many health problems the basic physical doesn't check for - from AIDS to hepatitis C - is it worth the expense?
In short, yes - the basic physical could save you great pain in the future. Here are the basics of what your doctor will do, and why:
After someone in a lab coat takes your height, weight and blood pressure - to check for hypertension - you will have blood drawn. The blood will be analyzed for anemia, high cholesterol and whether several organs are functioning properly.
A urine sample will be examined for blood (could be a sign of cancer) and sugar (could be a sign of diabetes). The longer diabetes goes untreated, the greater the chance of complications, including amputation.
The doctor might also check a stool sample, particularly if you are over 50. Blood could indicate colorectal cancer. Early detection is key to survival.
Women who haven't had a recent Pap smear - which tests for cervical cancer - should get one. Many doctors also use this opportunity to test for the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia.
White men over 50 and black men over 45 should get a PSA test to screen for prostate cancer, which occurs earlier in African-Americans.
Then, depending on your medical, family and personal history - and age - you may get some other tests, including electrocardiograms (EKGs) and mammograms.
You should get an AIDS test if you may have been exposed through unprotected sex, shared needles or blood transfusions. Pregnant women are now routinely tested for AIDS, since proper care can reduce the chance of passing it on to baby.
THE PHYSICAL EXAM:
When the doctor shines a light in your eyes, he or she is looking not only for potential eye problems, like glaucoma, but also for signs of diabetes and hypertension.
The light shined in your ears is to determine scarring, excess wax and infections old and new. Your mouth is searched for cancer and other diseases. If you are a smoker, make sure this is a more than a perfunctory "Open and say, 'Ah,' " as smokers are more prone to cancers of the mouth and throat.
The doctor will feel the pulse in your neck, to make sure arteries there are not blocked. If they are, you could be headed for a stroke.
With the stethoscope to your back and chest, the doctor listens for heart and lung problems.
Gently pushing on your belly, the doctor hopes to ascertain whether your organs are in good shape. Tender tissue or abnormal masses could mean cancer or another disease.
Women should receive a breast exam, in which the doctor checks for lumps or discharges that could indicate breast cancer.
Men over 40 get checked for prostate cancer through what is delicately called a "digital anal exam." Get over it, guys. This little poke could save your life. The doctor also examines the testicles for cancer and teaches men how to perform this test themselves. (Just feel for any enlargement.) Men then undergo the famous "Turn your head and cough" test, whereby the doctor feels for a hernia.
If it's been 10 years since your last tetanus shot, get one. When you reach 65, or if you are immuno-compromised, you should also get the pneumococcal vaccine against pneumonia. After 65, it's also a good idea to get an annual flu shot.