February is Heart Month, which is always a good time to consider our heart health and actions we can take in our everyday lives to care for our heart as best as possible.
One of those actions could be visiting your doctor for a simple stethoscope check, something you’ve likely seen your doctor perform many times. But even though it’s simple, it can have a big impact on preventative care. Dr. Rahul Jain, family physician at Sunnybrook, shares what a stethoscope check can detect and what it can tell your doctor about your overall heart health.
What is a stethoscope check?
A stethoscope check can tell your doctor a lot about your heart health.
“The heart contains four valves — or doorways — that help push blood in one direction,” Dr. Jain says. “When your heart valve closes, it makes a lub dub sound.”
By listening to those sounds during a stethoscope check, your doctor can hear your heart rate, your heart rhythm and the health of your heart valves.
What your doctor is listening for
Your doctor will typically listen to four areas over the heart.
“Every time we hear a lub dub, we’re hearing one full heartbeat,” says Dr. Jain, adding most adults typically have 60-100 heartbeats per minute.
During the stethoscope check, your doctor can also hear your heart rhythm.
“In a normal heart rhythm, we hear regular heartbeats, which sound like lub-dub…lub-dub…lub-dub, but if the heart rate is irregular, we might hear something like lub-dub…lub-dub…lub-dub/ lub-dub/lub-dub…lub-dub,” Dr. Jain says.
Something else a doctor can detect through a stethoscope check is a heart murmur.
“A murmur creates a whooshing or swishing sound when blood flows abnormally over the heart valves,” says Dr. Jain. “It may sound something like lub-shhh-dub…lub-shhh-dub.”
The importance of early detection
One of the most important reasons to see your doctor for a stethoscope check is early detection of conditions that can cause significant issues.
“Irregular heart rhythms can sometimes cause people to feel as though their heart is racing, and they can even increase the risk of stroke in a condition known as atrial fibrillation,” says Dr. Jain. “In the case of heart murmurs, some can be abnormal and may start without symptoms, but as the heart valve’s condition worsens, some people may feel breathless, have chest pain or even pass out.”
But it’s also important because it can alert your doctor to something abnormal in your heart and they can refer you for further treatment.
“A stethoscope check can tell us a lot about heart health, but not everything,” says Dr. Jain. “Further investigation may be needed, such as an ECG, HOLTER monitor, echocardiogram or cardiac stress testing.”
Dr. Jain says heart rhythms can be quite complex and not all abnormal rhythms can be properly identified through a stethoscope check alone. In addition, blockages in the heart that can lead to heart attacks can’t be picked up on a stethoscope check.
Who should get a stethoscope check
Dr. Jain says anyone from newborns to older adults can see their doctor for a stethoscope check, although it is highly recommended for individuals over 65 years of age and anyone who is experiencing symptoms of chest pain, breathlessness, heart racing, fatigue or dizziness. This brief check can help screen or detect any problems early on so you can get the right treatment at the right time.