The humble stethoscope has been around for more than 200 years, an iconic and enduring medical tool that allows providers to listen to their patients’ hearts.
What Do Providers Hear?
This important listening tool is used daily to assess heart rhythm and health.
Steven T. Gremillion, MD, chief medical officer for Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System and cardiologist with our Lady of the Lake Physician Group Louisiana Cardiology Associates, shares more about what providers are listening for when they place the cone on your chest.
Primarily doctors want to hear a healthy, normal heart rhythm, which is a regular beat without any murmurs. Thump, bump, thump, bump, thump, bump. The stethoscope can also uncover sounds of trouble, such as:
- Irregular rhythm, such as an extra beat or a skipped beat or bouncing all over.
- Heart murmurs that can indicate potential problems, usually blood flow within a heart valve. The murmur’s pitch and where it is in the heart can be determined with the stethoscope.
- Signs of congestive heart failure can be heard as abnormal heart function and fluid in the lungs.
A stethoscope itself usually isn’t enough to make the diagnosis, but any abnormalities uncovered by that initial exam will prompt further testing to uncover the possible cause. From there the healthcare team can form a treatment plan.
How Does it Work?
Invented in 1819 by R.T.H. Laënnec, the stethoscope began as a perforated wooden cylinder transmitting sounds from the chest (in Greek, stēthos) to the doctor’s ear. In any form, a stethoscope amplifies the small sounds inside the body, making them loud enough for the provider to hear.
Over time stethoscopes have become more convenient, sending sound to both ears through two flexible rubber tubes. A bell-shaped, open-ended chest piece transmits low-pitched sounds and a flat chest piece covered with a semirigid diaphragm type disk transmits higher frequency sounds.
A traditional stethoscope is a tried-and-true lifesaving tool, an enduring part of medicine. It’s a powerful way to help get a sense of how sick a patient might be and what type of care is required and how soon.