Doctors spend months, and even years, learning to listen to the internal workings of the human body. New technologies, such as ultrasound, provide medical personnel with the opportunity to visualize what’s going on inside of a patient. However, a well-trained physician can identify these issues through the simple process of listening.
The stethoscope is one of a doctor’s most powerful screening tools for everything from heart conditions to bronchitis to gastrointestinal issues. So, what exactly is the doctor listening for when he puts the stethoscope to your chest, back and abdomen?
Auscultation is the medical term for listening to the internal sounds of the body. Cardiac auscultation, or listening to the heart, helps a doctor determine if there are any concerns with your heart’s rate and rhythm, its valve functioning or if there are any anatomical defects. With every beat of a heart, a healthy heart makes two clicking sounds as the valves shut. Additional clicks and whooshes can signify that your heart is not operating properly.
Proper auscultation requires careful listening because not all sounds are easily distinguishable or distinct. Heart doctors will typically use a special stethoscope called a cardiac stethoscope that allows them to better isolate the high and low frequency heart sounds.
When doctors listen to your heart, they are listening for knocks, clicks, snaps, whooshes, pitch and high and low frequency sounds. While listening for these sounds may seem straight-forward, it’s actually very complicated. Individually, these sounds are associated with a variety of possible ailments, and the various combinations of these sounds also indicate very different issues. It takes a well-trained cardiac professional to discern what is happening with your heart.
When your doctor examines your lungs with a stethoscope, he is listening for wheezes or crackles that occur outside of the normal functioning of your lungs. If your airways are constricted, you will wheeze as you inhale and exhale. Crackling sounds when you breathe are an indication that you have fluid in your lungs.
Your stomach and bowels are constant noisemakers as they push food through your system. Listening to your bowels through a stethoscope lets the doctor know if they are functioning correctly or if they are operating too fast, too slow or not at all.
If they are working harder than normal, it could be an indication of gastroenteritis (stomach flu) or even inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Slower than normal bowel function typically indicates constipation, which, in most cases, can be rectified by an increase in dietary fiber and physical activity. If paired with other symptoms, constipation can be an indication of a number of different neurological, metabolic or systemic disorders. Your doctor will work with you to determine what is causing your issues and what is the best action for treatment.