Why Physicals Are Especially Important for Teens and Young Men

Preventative care is an often overlooked but an important part of young men’s health. Seeing your doctor once a year for an annual physical can seem like a burden when you’re a healthy teenage boy, but it’s a great opportunity to check in, make sure all is well, and clear you for the upcoming school year, sports season, work, or camp. Yet, unless prompted by their parents, teenage boys and young men are notorious for skipping this visit.

Besides performing a physical exam, keeping you up to date with your immunizations, and filling out any forms, the physical is your doctor’s chance to screen for any risk factors to your health. Studies show that the adolescent and young adult years of a young man’s life tend to coincide with a multitude of risky behaviors such as experimentation with alcohol, drugs, sex, supplements, reckless driving, and more. During this stage of development, young people tend to be more impulsive which can have negative consequences for the rest of one’s life. If not screened for and discussed, this “can cause routine health issues to worsen and become larger concerns,” says Kyle Bardet, MD, a doctor in Penn Medicine’s Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Department. “That could lead to the need for more significant healthcare down the line.”

What to Expect During Your Annual Exam

Despite the name of it, your annual exam is more about talking than examining. This once a year visit is meant to make sure you have healthy behaviors and stay well into the future. You should schedule it when you feel well so you have the time to cover all the different areas of your health, not just one or two ailments you have that day.

During the visit, you’ll talk about a number of things with your doctor. Remember, this information is confidential and it’s best to be honest! Your doctor will ask you about what’s new in your life, how your general health has been, and then dive into more specific questions.

You can expect to discuss your mental health, diet, exercise, any medications or supplements you are taking, and about things that may increase your risk for disease later in life. This is why your doctor asks about things like alcohol, tobacco, vaping, marijuana, and drugs. If you are using any of these substances, your doctor will talk with you about the risks and help create a plan to get you off of them.

It can sometimes be hard to discuss dating and sex with your doctor, but it’s a very important part of the visit. Risky sexual activity is one of the leading causes of illness in teenagers. In recent years sexually transmitted disease rates have been increasing! Even if you aren’t sexually active, your doctor may still recommend preventative testing for things such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, or HIV. If you have specific concerns about sexuality, risk for STDs, or prevention medicines against HIV, this is a great time to talk do you doctor!

Your doctor will also review your vaccines, let you know if any are needed, and review any past blood work. Most young men won’t require blood work at their annual visit, but it is important to check labs like cholesterol every few years.

Then, you’ll have a brief exam. Many young men avoid the doctor because they are nervous about genital exams. Doctors sometimes perform these if you have a concern about your testicle or things don’t seem right down there. Otherwise, rest assured – a genital exam is not necessarily part of your annual visit! However, it is important for young men to screen themselves for testicular cancer on a regular basis. While there isn’t a specific way to do this, doing it the same way and in the shower each month is our recommendation. If you aren’t sure what you are feeling, if something is changing, if you have pain, or if you notice a lump or bump, then you should bring this up with your doctor and ask them for an exam to see if anything is wrong. Problems with the genitals are generally easy to treat when discussed in a timely manner!

Your Comfort Level Will Help Inform Your Care

Good preventative care goes far beyond just physical health. The yearly physical is a great time to get to know your doctor, for your doctor to get to know you, and for you to be able to freely and confidentially discuss any questions you have about your body, your mental health, or your lifestyle. One of Dr. Bardet’s favorite conversations is about the safety of exercise, strength training, and nutritional supplements – something many people don’t even know that they can ask a doctor!

“Teen boys are generally less likely to ask questions about things they’re concerned with. Instead, they end up internalizing a lot of it, asking their friends, or relying on bad information from the internet,” Dr. Bardet says. “By developing a relationship with your family doctor, you’ll always have a knowledgeable, trustworthy person you can turn to with almost any concern.”

Chances are, he adds, if you’re wondering about something, someone else had the same question before you. So, it can be comforting just to learn that you’re not alone.
How to find a doctor who specializes in teens

So, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen a doctor, and the last time you did it was a pediatrician, it might be time to call Penn Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine or look for a doctor in your area who specializes in taking care of young men.

You may even want to see a few different doctors before finding one who feels like a good fit. Here are a few questions to pose during your search:

  •  If my doctor isn’t available, who will see me?
  • Are evening and weekend appointments available? What about virtual appointments?
  • How long will it usually take to get an appointment?

“Look for someone who’s knowledgeable in general and has extensive experience with treating the unique challenges that face teens,” Dr. Bardet says. “Above all, try to find someone you feel comfortable with. The more open you feel you can be with them, the better their care is going to be.”

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