European Respiratory Society

Physical examination of the adult patient with respiratory diseases: inspection and palpation

B Maitre, T Similowski, JP Derenne


Inspection of the thorax identifies the breathing position adopted by the patient, the shape of the thorax, the dynamics of respiration (breathing pattern, symmetry of expansion, mechanics and synchrony of rib cage and abdominal movements). Inspection of the neck adds useful information, particularly with respect to the dynamics of breathing. Palpation ascertains the signs suggested by inspection with respect to the mechanics of breathing. It also assesses the state of the pleura and pulmonary parenchyma by studying the tactile fremitus. It integrates extrarespiratory signs, such as enlarged lymph nodes or breast abnormalities. Extrathoracic respiratory signs should also be systematically looked for, including cyanosis, finger deformation, pulsus paradoxus, and pursed lips breathing. Interobserver agreement about respiratory signs has repeatedly been studied, and generally found to be low, as are clinical-functional correlations. However, some data on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or pulmonary embolism are available. From the description of some signs and the current knowledge about their operative values, it appears that much clinical research remains necessary to better define the precise diagnostic value of a given sign. The impact of training on diagnostic performance also has to be defined. Both of these aspects should allow clinicians to optimize the way in which they use their hands and eyes to conduct respiratory diagnosis, as well as the way they teach respiratory symptomatology.