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Medical History and Physical Examination for Heart and Blood Vessel Disorders


Thomas Cascino

, MD, MSc, University of Michigan;

Michael J. Shea

, MD, Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan

Last full review/revision Jul 2021| Content last modified Jul 2021
Click here for the Professional Version
Topic Resources

The medical history and physical examination can suggest that a person has a heart or blood vessel disorder that requires additional testing for accurate diagnosis.

Medical History

When doctors "take a medical history," they ask people to explain the "story" of what is bothering them. Doctors first ask about symptoms. Chest pain, shortness of breath, awareness of fast or irregular heartbeats (palpitations), fainting, dizziness or light-headedness, trouble laying flat, and swelling (edema) in the legs, ankles, and feet or abdomen suggest a heart disorder.

Other, more general symptoms, such as fever, weakness, fatigue, lack of appetite, and a general feeling of illness or discomfort (malaise), may be due to a heart disorder but have many other causes.

Pain, numbness, or muscle cramps in a leg may suggest peripheral arterial disease, which affects the arteries of the arms, legs, and trunk (except those supplying the heart).

Next, doctors ask about

  • Whether a person is sedentary or active

  • Symptoms that occur during exertion or exercise and that are relieved by rest

  • Use of drugs (including prescription, nonprescription, naturopathic, and/or recreational drugs), alcohol, and tobacco

  • Family history of disorders that affect the heart or blood vessels

Physical Examination

During the physical examination, doctors may check the person's

  • Weight and overall appearance

  • Vital signs (such as temperature, breathing rate, and blood pressure)

  • Eyes

  • Veins in the neck

  • Heart and lung sounds

  • Pulses

  • Legs and ankles for any signs of swelling

  • Skin

Doctors look for paleness (pallor), sweating, or drowsiness, which may be subtle indicators of heart disorders. The person's general mood and feeling of well-being, which also may be affected by heart disorders, are noted.

Skin color is assessed because pallor or a bluish or purplish coloration (cyanosis) may indicate a low level of red blood cells (anemia) or inadequate blood flow. These findings also may indicate that the skin is not receiving enough oxygen from the blood because of a lung disorder, heart failure, or various circulatory problems.

The pulse in arteries in the neck, beneath the arms, at the elbows and wrists, in the abdomen, in the groin, at the knees, and in the ankles and feet is felt to assess whether blood flow is adequate and equal on both sides of the body. An abnormality may suggest a heart or blood vessel disorder.

The veins in the neck are inspected while the person is lying down with the upper part of the body elevated at a 45° angle. These veins are inspected because they are directly connected to the right atrium (the upper chamber of the heart that receives oxygen-depleted blood from the body) and thus give an indication of the volume and pressure of blood entering the right side of the heart. Highly distended neck veins suggest abnormally high pressure in the right side of the heart.

Doctors check for swelling (edema) caused by fluid accumulation in the tissues beneath the skin by pressing their fingers on the skin over the ankles and legs and sometimes over the lower back. Edema can result from heart failure or other disorders such as kidney or liver disease.

The eyes are examined because the light-sensitive membrane on the inner surface of the eyes (retina) is the only place doctors can directly view veins and arteries. Doctors use an ophthalmoscope to view the blood vessels of the retina. Visible abnormalities in the retina are common among people with high blood pressure, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and bacterial infections of the heart valves (endocarditis).

Doctors observe the chest to determine whether the breathing rate and movements are normal. By tapping (percussing) the chest with the fingers, doctors can determine if the lungs are filled with air, which is normal, or if they contain fluid (pleural effusion), which is abnormal and can be caused by heart failure and certain lung disorders. Percussion also helps determine whether the sac that envelops the heart (pericardium) contains fluid.

They listen to breathing sounds using a stethoscope. The presence of fine crackling sounds suggests that there is fluid within the lungs that is caused by heart failure.

By placing a hand on the person's chest, doctors can feel (palpate) where the heartbeat is strongest and thus determine whether the heart is enlarged. The quality and force of contractions during each heartbeat can also be determined. Sometimes abnormal, turbulent blood flow within vessels or between heart chambers causes a vibration (called a thrill) that can be felt with the fingertips or palm.

By listening to (auscultating) the heart with a stethoscope, doctors can hear the distinctive sounds caused by the opening and closing of the heart valves. Abnormalities of the valves and heart structures create turbulent blood flow that causes characteristic sounds called murmurs. Turbulent blood flow typically occurs as blood moves through narrowed or leaking valves. However, not all heart disorders cause murmurs, and not all murmurs indicate a heart disorder. For example, pregnant women usually have heart murmurs because of a normal increase in blood flow. Harmless heart murmurs also are common among infants and children because of the rapid flow of blood through their heart’s smaller structure. As blood vessel walls, valves, and other tissues gradually stiffen in older people, blood may flow turbulently, even when no serious heart disorder is present. Also, doctors may hear clicks and snaps when an abnormal valve opens. A gallop rhythm (a sound resembling that of a galloping horse), due to one or two extra heart sounds, is often heard in people who have heart failure.

By placing the stethoscope over arteries and veins elsewhere in the body, doctors can listen for sounds of turbulent blood flow (bruits). Bruits may be caused by narrowing of blood vessels, increased blood flow, or an abnormal connection between an artery and a vein (arteriovenous fistula).

Doctors feel the abdomen to determine if the liver is enlarged. Enlargement may indicate that blood is pooled in the major veins leading to the heart. Swelling of the abdomen due to fluid accumulation may indicate heart failure. By pressing gently on the abdomen, the doctor checks the pulse and determines the width of the abdominal aorta.

Ambulatory (home) blood pressure monitoring

If the diagnosis of high blood pressure is in doubt (for example, if the measurements taken in the office vary too much), doctors may recommend that people use a continuous 24-hour blood pressure (BP) monitor. The monitor is a portable battery-operated device, worn on the hip, that is connected to a blood pressure cuff, worn on the arm. This monitor repeatedly records blood pressure throughout the day and night over a 24- or 48-hour period. The readings determine not only whether high blood pressure is present but also how severe it is.

Doctors also often recommend that people with high blood pressure monitor their own blood pressure at home. Self-monitoring may motivate people to follow a doctor's recommendations regarding treatment. One option for home blood pressure monitoring is an inexpensive home blood pressure monitor. The monitor is a portable battery-operated device that people can use to easily take their blood pressure at home using a cuff placed around the wrist or upper arm. Although these monitors are usually not as accurate as the devices used at a doctor's office, they enable people to monitor their blood pressure more frequently and facilitate drug adjustment by their doctor.

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