My Favorite Physical Exam Pearls

Douglas S. Paauw, MD

January 06, 2022

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.

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, 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.

Determining if Clubbing Is Present

Most physicians are aware of Shamroth sign, and use it to evaluate for clubbing. Shamroth sign is the loss of the diamond that is created by placing the back surfaces of opposite terminal phalanges together.

I have found that it's easier to diagnose mild clubbing by looking at the finger in profile. If the ratio of the distal phalangeal depth compared to the depth across the distal interphalangeal joint is greater than 1:1, then clubbing is present.3


  1. Have the patient try yawning to better see the pharynx without using a tongue blade.

  2. Try the technique of auscultatory percussion to be more accurate at picking up pleural effusions.

  3. Know your hematocrit, so you can better use color shade to assess for anemia.

  4. Try looking at fingers in profile to pick up clubbing.

Paauw is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and serves as 3rd-year medical student clerkship director at the University of Washington. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News. Paauw has no conflicts to disclose. Contact him at .


1. Guarino JR and Guarino JC. Auscultatory percussion: A simple method to detect pleural effusion. J Gen Intern Med. 1994 Feb;9(2):71-4.

2. Strobach RS et al. The value of the physical examination in the diagnosis of anemia. Correlation of the physical findings and the hemoglobin concentrationArch Intern Med. 1988 Apr;148(4):831-2.

3. Spicknall KE et al. Clubbing: an update on diagnosis, differential diagnosis, pathophysiology, and clinical relevance. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Jun;52(6):1020-8.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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