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What Are the Different Methods of Respiratory System Examination?

The human respiratory system, showing the trachea, bronchioles, and lungs.
A human respiratory system.
A stethoscope, which can be used during a respiratory system examination.
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  • Written By: J. Beam
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 April 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Examination of the respiratory system is commonplace at any doctor’s office visit, both for the purpose of evaluating overall health and for the purpose of diagnosing a specific complaint or ailment involving the respiratory system. The primary method of respiratory system examination involves three major components from the examining physician’s end: inspection, percussion, and auscultation. Together, these components make up the routine clinical examination of the respiratory system, but in the case of abnormal findings, further examination and diagnostic testing may be performed.

Inspection is the physician’s initial step in a respiratory system examination. Inspection involves assessing specific aspects of a patient’s breathing and system functions, such as the color of skin, breathing patterns, and symmetry of the anatomical parts of the respiratory system. Palpation, or gentle prodding, is part of the inspection and helps the physician feel for abnormalities or tenderness in the subcutaneous tissue of the thorax, providing further indications of the respiratory system’s functionality.

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Percussion is the part of the respiratory system examination that involves tapping on different parts of the body to elicit percussion tones that help a physician determine the presence and amount of air, liquid, or solid matter moving through the lungs. Based on vibrations, a trained physician can tell a great deal about the current functioning of a patient’s respiratory system through percussion. Additionally, the auscultation portion of a respiratory system examination, which involves listening to sounds of the patient breathing through a stethoscope, gives a doctor a very good idea of current lung function and whether any obstruction may be present.

In the event that respiratory distress is a symptom or a patient is being treated for a respiratory condition, other tests may follow a clinical respiratory system examination. An arterial blood gas (ABG) test may be performed to measure the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood, which is an indicator of lung function. This may also be performed in conjunction with a circulatory test, as circulation is a direct connection to the heart’s functionality. If a doctor suspects a lung condition, such as pleurisy or pneumonia, a chest x-ray may be performed in order to obtain a visual inspection of the lungs.

Patients with chronic respiratory conditions, such as COPD, asthma, or related conditions may receive a more thorough respiratory system examination with routine testing for monitoring of the respiratory system function. A doctor may also provide such patients with a spirometer, a device used for measuring the volume of inhaled and exhaled air, to perform an initial lung function test and may instruct patients to use the device routinely at home as a form of lung exercise.

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