Auscultation is the medical term for using a stethoscope to listen to the sounds inside of your body. This simple test poses no risks or side effects.
Why is auscultation used?
Abnormal sounds may indicate problems in these areas:
- major blood vessels
Potential issues can include:
- irregular heart rate
- Crohnâ€™s disease
- phlegm or fluid buildup in your lungs
Your doctor can also use a machine called a Doppler ultrasound for auscultation. This machine uses sound waves that bounce off your internal organs to create images. This is also used to listen to your babyâ€™s heart rate when youâ€™re pregnant.
How is the test performed?
Your doctor places the stethoscope over your bare skin and listens to each area of your body. There are specific things your doctor will listen for in each area.
To hear your heart, your doctor listens to the four main regions where heart valve sounds are the loudest. These are areas of your chest above and slightly below your left breast. Some heart sounds are also best heard when youâ€™re turned toward your left side. In your heart, your doctor listens for:
- what your heart sounds like
- how often each sound occurs
- how loud the sound is
Your doctor listens to one or more regions of your abdomen separately to listen to your bowel sounds. They may hear swishing, gurgling, or nothing at all. Each sound informs your doctor about whatâ€™s happening in your intestines.
When listening to your lungs, your doctor compares one side with the other and compares the front of your chest with the back of your chest. Airflow sounds differently when airways are blocked, narrowed, or filled with fluid. Theyâ€™ll also listen for abnormal sounds such as wheezing. Learn more about breath sounds.
How are results interpreted?
Auscultation can tell your doctor a lot about whatâ€™s going on inside of your body.
Traditional heart sounds are rhythmic. Variations can signal to your doctor that some areas may not be getting enough blood or that you have a leaky valve. Your doctor may order additional testing if they hear something unusual.
Your doctor should be able to hear sounds in all areas of your abdomen. Digested material may be stuck or your intestine may be twisted if an area of your abdomen has no sounds. Both possibilities can be very serious.
Lung sounds can vary as much as heart sounds. Wheezes can be either high- or low-pitched and can indicate that mucus is preventing your lungs from expanding properly. One type of sound your doctor might listen for is called a rub. Rubs sound like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together and can indicate irritated surfaces around your lungs.
What are some alternatives to auscultation?
Other methods that you doctor can use to determine whatâ€™s happening inside of your body are palpation and percussion.
Your doctor can perform a palpation simply by placing their fingers over one of your arteries to measure systolic pressure. Doctors usually look for a point of maximal impact (PMI) around your heart.
If your doctor feels something abnormal, they can identify possible issues related to your heart. Abnormalities may include a large PMI or thrill. A thrill is a vibration caused by your heart thatâ€™s felt on the skin.
Percussion involves your doctor tapping their fingers on various parts of your abdomen. Your doctor uses percussion to listen for sounds based on the organs or body parts underneath your skin.
Youâ€™ll hear hollow sounds when your doctor taps body parts filled with air and much duller sounds when your doctor taps above bodily fluids or an organ, such as your liver.
Percussion allows your doctor to identify many heart-related issues based on the relative dullness of sounds. Conditions that can be identified using percussion include:
- enlarged heart, which is called cardiomegaly
- excessive fluid around the heart, which is called pericardial effusion
Why is auscultation important?
Auscultation gives your doctor a basic idea about whatâ€™s occurring in your body. Your heart, lungs, and other organs in your abdomen can all be tested using auscultation and other similar methods.
For example, if your doctor doesnâ€™t identify a fist-sized area of dullness left of your sternum, you might be tested for emphysema. Also, if your doctor hears whatâ€™s called an â€œopening snapâ€ when listening to your heart, you might be tested for mitral stenosis. You might need additional tests for a diagnosis depending on the sounds your doctor hears.
Auscultation and related methods are a good way for your doctor to know whether or not you need close medical attention. Auscultation can be an excellent preventive measure against certain conditions. Ask your doctor to perform these procedures whenever you have a physical exam.
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