Your healthcare provider is trained to look at the human body to help find problems. When your provider presses on your belly, he or she may get major clues to possible problems.
This exam with the hands gives healthcare providers information about important parts of the body. These are the liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, stomach, pancreas, bladder, gallbladder, appendix, and the abdominal aorta. This aorta is the main blood vessel from your heart to your legs. In women, the exam can also give information about the uterus and ovaries.
When your healthcare provider presses on your belly, he or she is feeling to see if any of these organs is puffy or sore. This makes the organ painful to touch. This could be a sign of disease.
Healthcare providers use two ways to look at your belly:
Sometimes, talking to you and a physical exam is all that is needed to make a diagnosis, Sometimes, you may need more exams or testing.
Palpation means pushing down to see if the organs can be felt. For example, the aorta that supplies blood to the lower limbs of the body runs directly beneath the bellybutton. It should be only an inch wide. If it is wider than that, you could have a problem such as an aneurysm.
Your healthcare provider also looks for tenderness or pain that you might feel when he or she briefly pushes in and then quickly lifts his or her hands off your stomach. Such pain means that the membrane that lines the belly cavity is inflamed. This often happens when the appendix is diseased. It also happens when the bowel has a hole, or you have inflammation in the lining of the belly.
Your provider can often feel whether certain internal organs such as the liver, spleen, or uterus are larger than normal. The next step is finding the reason for the enlargement—possibly disease.
Percussion means tapping the belly and listening to the sounds. It's similar to the tapping done by shoppers who know a ripe watermelon sounds different from an unripe one. When a healthcare provider taps just below the rib cage, he or she can hear the sounds made by a normal liver. Similar sounds heard when tapping beyond where the liver should be could be a sign of an enlarged liver. Percussion can sometimes find fluid in the belly cavity. This is often from heart, liver, or kidney disease.