The Real Reason Doctors Tap Your Ribcage

Getting a physical at the doctor's office typically comes with standard body inspections, including checking areas like the ribcage and abdomen. Interestingly, there's a lot your doctor can learn from just a few light taps.

The tapping your doctor does has a name, and it's called percussion. It can give vital clues as to what's happening below the surface (via WebMD). Think of the hollow sound made by tapping an empty barrel compared to the dull sounds made by tapping a container full of liquid. Your doctor is listening for the same variation in pitches when tapping on specific spots on the ribcage or abdomen, according to A dull sound indicates a solid or fluid-filled structure, like the liver or a full bladder. A tympanic (or drum-like) sound is made when tapping over an air-filled structure like the stomach or lungs. Percussion can also help indicate any abnormality in the size of an organ or tissue.

Annual physicals help keep your health on track

Percussion can be the first sign of a serious problem, like an enlarged organ or excess fluid resulting from heart, liver, or kidney disease (via University of Rochester Medical Center). Thus, it's an important part of routine physicals. And if you can't remember the last time you checked in with your doctor, it may be time to give them a call. 

In your 20s and 30s, getting a physical every couple of years is fine if your health is generally good. But beyond that, making it an annual event is a good idea. Family medicine physician Daniel Allan tells Cleveland Clinic, "Getting a physical should be a regular occurrence as you hit age 40 and up. It's a chance to come in and bring up things that are bugging you, whether it's a lingering health issue or something you read that you want your doctor's opinion on."