The approach to a patient with known or suspected cardiovascular disease begins with the time-honored traditions of a directed history and a targeted physical examination. The scope of these activities depends on the clinical context at the time of presentation, ranging from an elective ambulatory follow-up visit to a more focused emergency department encounter. There has been a gradual decline in physical examination skills over the last two decades at every level, from student to faculty specialist, a development of great concern to both clinicians and medical educators. Classic cardiac findings are recognized by only a minority of internal medicine and family practice residents. Despite popular perceptions, clinical performance does not improve predictably as a function of experience; instead, the acquisition of new examination skills may become more difficult for a busy individual practitioner. Less time is now devoted to mentored cardiovascular examinations during the training of students and residents. One widely recognized outcome of these trends is the progressive overutilization of noninvasive imaging studies to establish the presence and severity of cardiovascular disease even when the examination findings imply a low pretest probability of significant pathology. Educational techniques to improve bedside skills include repetition, patient-centered teaching conferences, and visual display feedback of auscultatory events with Doppler echocardiographic imaging.
The evidence base that links the findings from the history and physical examination to the presence, severity, and prognosis of cardiovascular disease has been established most rigorously for coronary artery disease, heart failure, and valvular heart disease. For example, observations regarding heart rate, blood pressure, signs of pulmonary congestion, and the presence of mitral regurgitation (MR) contribute importantly to bedside risk assessment in patients with acute coronary syndromes. Observations from the physical examination in this setting can inform clinical decision making before the results of cardiac biomarkers testing are known. The prognosis of patients with systolic heart failure can be predicted on the basis of the jugular venous pressure (JVP) and the presence or absence of a third heart sound (S3). Accurate characterization of cardiac murmurs provides important insight into the natural history of many valvular and congenital heart lesions. Finally, the important role played by the physical examination in enhancing the clinician-patient relationship cannot be overestimated.
The General Physical Examination
Any examination begins with an assessment of the general appearance of the patient, with notation of age, posture, demeanor, and overall health status. Is the patient in pain or resting quietly, dyspneic or diaphoretic? Does the patient choose to avoid certain body positions to reduce or eliminate pain, as might be the case with suspected acute pericarditis? Are there clues indicating that dyspnea may have a pulmonary cause, such as a barrel chest deformity with an increased anterior-posterior diameter, tachypnea, and pursed-lip breathing? Skin pallor, cyanosis, and jaundice can be appreciated readily and provide additional clues. A chronically ill-appearing emaciated patient may suggest the presence of long-standing heart failure or another systemic disorder, such as a malignancy. Various genetic syndromes, often with cardiovascular involvement, can also be recognized easily, such as trisomy 21, Marfan syndrome, and Holt-Oram syndrome. Height and weight should be measured routinely, and both body mass index and body surface area should be calculated. Knowledge of the waist circumference and the waist-to-hip ratio can be used to predict long-term cardiovascular risk. Mental status, level of alertness, and mood should be assessed continuously during the interview and examination.
Central cyanosis occurs with significant right-to-left shunting at the level of the heart or lungs, allowing deoxygenated blood to reach the systemic circulation. Peripheral cyanosis or acrocyanosis, in contrast, is usually related to reduced extremity blood flow due to small vessel constriction, as seen in patients with severe heart failure, shock, or peripheral vascular disease; it can be aggravated by the use of β-adrenergic blockers with unopposed α-mediated constriction. Differential cyanosis refers to isolated cyanosis affecting the lower but not the upper extremities in a patient with a large patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) and secondary pulmonary hypertension with right-to-left to shunting at the great vessel level. Hereditary telangiectasias on the lips, tongue, and mucous membranes, as part of the Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome (hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia), resemble spider nevi and can be a source of right-to-left shunting when also present in the lung. Malar telangiectasias also are seen in patients with advanced mitral stenosis and scleroderma. An unusually tan or bronze discoloration of the skin may suggest hemochromatosis as the cause of the associated systolic heart failure. Jaundice, which may be visible first in the sclerae, has a broad differential diagnosis but in the appropriate setting can be consistent with advanced right heart failure and congestive hepatomegaly or late-term "cardiac cirrhosis." Cutaneous ecchymoses are seen frequently among patients taking vitamin K antagonists or antiplatelet agents such as aspirin and thienopyridines. Various lipid disorders sometimes are associated with subcutaneous xanthomas, particularly along the tendon sheaths or over the extensor surfaces of the extremities. Severe hypertriglyceridemia can be associated with eruptive xanthomatosis and lipemia retinalis. Palmar crease xanthomas are specific for type III hyperlipoproteinemia. Pseudoxanthoma elasticum, a disease associated with premature atherosclerosis, is manifested by a leathery, cobblestoned appearance of the skin in the axilla and neck creases and by angioid streaks on funduscopic examination. Extensive lentiginoses have been described in a variety of development delay–cardiovascular syndromes, including Carney syndrome, which includes multiple atrial myxomas. Cutaneous manifestations of sarcoidosis such as lupus pernio and erythema nodosum may suggest this disease as a cause of an associated dilated cardiomyopathy, especially with heart block, intraventricular conduction delay, or ventricular tachycardia.
Dentition and oral hygiene should be assessed in every patient both as a source of potential infection and as an index of general health. A high-arched palate is a feature of Marfan syndrome and other connective tissue disease syndromes. Bifid uvula has been described in patients with Loeys-Dietz syndrome, and orange tonsils are ...