Stethoscope: What is it and how is it Used

Stethoscopes are possibly the most famous and most commonly known symbol of anything that has to do with medicine and doctors. Every single doctor, medical student, nurses, midwives and anyone from the medical profession has always been using a stethoscope in their work. Even for small children, playing “doctor” involves jabbing away with a stethoscope even before they are actually aware of the responsibilities of the profession.


So, what exactly is a stethoscope?

A stethoscope, primarily, is an extremely important and a basic medical instrument. It is neither electrical nor does it run on batteries; rather, a pretty mechanical device that is one of the first things a doctor or a nurse reaches for when encountering a patient.

You can recognize a stethoscope immediately when meeting a doctor for the first time! It is the instrument that will either be hanging by their neck or in their hands. The reason that a stethoscope is always kept close is because the doctor, or the nurse, will need it to make their first assessment about a patient’s condition, no matter the reason they seek medical help

What is the doctor actually listening to?

The primary uses of a stethoscope are to listen to a patient’s heart, lungs and blood flow, and sometimes, to their bowel movements.

When a doctor or a nurse is pressing the stethoscope to your chest and back, they are actually listening to your “heart beats” and “murmurs”. While everyone knows what “heart beats” are, “murmurs” are actually irregularities in the blood flow. Some “murmurs” are harmless, but some might be pointing to a problem in the body. A doctor or a nurse will probably place the stethoscope on at least three to four locations on you’re the left side of your chest and back, and listen for a minute to decide whether everything is all right.

On the other hand, “wheezes” and “crackles” are heard from the lungs (over the chest) when they are congested. Around the heart, “wheezes” and “crackles” mean that the airways are not clear; this happens when there is fluid in the lungs because the patient is suffering from extreme cold or asthma. The severity of the problem can be primarily determined with a stethoscope, before sending the patient for further tests if needed. Normally, a healthy pair of lungs doesn’t make any sound when completely clear.

“Gurgling” sound in the bowels indicate a problem with gas and indigestion. Doctors might check for these problems when a patient comes in with complaints of stomachache and/or backache.

On a related note, combined with a sphygmomanometer, a stethoscope is used to measure blood pressure, both at home and by a medical professional.

There are two types of Stethoscopes…

The ones familiar to everyone are known as Acoustic Stethoscopes. They transmit bodily sounds from the chest piece to the ear pieces through a hollow tube.  An Electronic Stethoscope, on the other hand, electronically amplifies body sounds to send clearer audio to the ears. It is usually a wireless device that can sometimes even record the sound, as well as provide audio/video output. Not many people can afford to buy an electronic stethoscope for personal use; rather, it is the acoustic stethoscope that is more in use around homes.

Two other types of stethoscopes are Fetal Stethoscopes and the Doppler. Fetal Stethoscopes are used to listen to fetal heartbeat, but they are not too accurate. A Doppler, alternatively, traces moving objects inside a body, i.e. the beating heart of the fetus inside a pregnant woman.

What to Look for in a Good Stethoscope?

You might be looking for a stethoscope if you are about to start your medical life, or for personal use at home. A good stethoscope should have these few features for it to deliver the best results:

  • stainless steel chest piece; alternatively, one made from bronze alloys. The finish on the outside should be hand-polished, but the insides should also have perforations and should be able to absorb sound properly.
  • tube made from thick material. This will exterminate all unnecessary noise and ensure good sound.
  • diaphragm made from flexible material.
  • Earpieces that are soft; otherwise, the tips wouldn’t fit into the ears properly.
  • The headset that is angled at 15°. This is one reason you need to try on the stethoscope before buying it, as the angling of the headset is an important feature.
  • A stem that is also stainless steel or titanium. It may seem like an unimportant feature, but the right material for the stem ensures good sound.

Knowing How to Use Stethoscope Properly

Whether you are about to embark a medical career or buying a stethoscope for personal use, learning how to use it is easy, and possible for anyone who can hear.

The first thing you need to do with a new stethoscope is to adjust the earpieces so that they are facing each other at the correct angle. They must fit into your ears properly if you want to hear heartbeats and murmurs appropriately. At the same time, they must not be too tight inside so that you hurt your ears.

The chest piece has two sides to it: the diaphragm and the bell. The former is for listening to higher frequencies and the latter one is for lower frequencies. Tap slightly on the side you want to use at that moment to know whether it is working properly or not; if you hear the tapping noise clearly through the earpiece, it is working fine. Otherwise, you have to switch between the diaphragm and the bell to adjust the side you need.

The ideal setting for listening with a stethoscope will be a quiet room, with the patient initially lying on their back. Place the chest piece on the chest of the patient (to listen to their heart), and listen carefully. If you hear the heartbeat clearly, your stethoscope is working fine. What you should be listening to actually depends on your purpose of use.

Maintaining your stethoscope requires proper cleaning of the earpieces so that there are no obstacles. Too much dirt accumulating on it will impair hearing, and give you a misdiagnosis. You can clean the earpieces, as well as the chest piece, with alcohol wipes. Avoid direct application of liquid cleaners as they might harm the stethoscope. Also, look for cracks, as they might be a problem as well.

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