Auscultation is a part of a medical exam in which the doctor, nurse, or other care provider listens to sounds going on inside the body with the aid of a stethoscope. The word “auscultation” is derived from the Latin for “listen,” and it can take some time to learn to perform this type of exam competently. Many people are familiar with this process, as it is a common part of most physical exams, designed to provide the doctor with important information about the patient's general level of health and physical condition.
Humans have recognized the value of listening to internal sounds for centuries, as ample discussions and depictions of ancient medicine indicate. In the 1800s, French physician Rene Laennec developed the stethoscope, revolutionizing the process of auscultation. The stethoscope allowed doctors to get a much clearer sound during this process, and modern variants have included stethoscopes which record what the doctor hears, cancel out superfluous noise, and have other features to improve the listening experience.
Three different systems inside the body can be listened to during auscultation: the heart, the lungs, and the bowels. Auscultation can reveal signs of ill health including irregular heartbeats, fluid in the lungs, or bowel obstructions. An attentive listener can often identify very specific conditions by sound alone, listening for tell-tale signs such as a particular type of crackle in the lungs which suggests pneumonia, or the wheezing characteristic of asthma.
During the exam, the doctor may move the stethoscope around to listen to various areas of interest, and may direct the patient to take deep breaths, hold the breath, or engage in other activities so that the doctor can hear changes on the exam. It is important for patients to remember not to move excessively during auscultation, as this can generate background noise which makes it hard to identify things like subtle heart murmurs. It is also wise to refrain from talking, as the stethoscope will magnify the speech and it can be painful for the physician in addition to disruptive for the exam because the doctor will no longer be able to hear internal noises over the sound of speech.
Trainee medical care providers are given numerous chances to practice their auscultation skills. They listen to each other routinely, and may be invited to listen to patients with “classic” presentations of particular conditions so that they can get familiar with the different sounds they may hear on exams.