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EMpediatrics

Tricking Kids into the Perfect Exam:


Tips for Evaluating the Pediatric Patient
While pediatric patients may be small, Finally, always save the worst for last.
they often can be as intimidating to us The last items to perform in the physical
as we are to them. The factors that add exam should always be those things that
to this anxiety are relative inexperience are most threatening to the child, including
with children compared to adult patients,1 looking in the ears and mouth.
and the inability of younger patients
to communicate or cooperate with the Here are a few cases to illustrate the
physical exam. While each physician importance of the physical exam and
may vary with style points and favorite emphasize other tips for evaluating those
tricks, here are a few tips for the pediatric age groups that provide the most anxiety
physical exam to improve your interaction and difficult exam.
and comfort level. Newborn
Rose House, MD One of the first tasks as an emergency Case 1: A 3-week-old male presented to the
EM/Pediatrics Resident physician is to put the patient at ease. Talk emergency department for congestion and
Indiana University to the child as well as the parents. For cough. Mom stated that the infant was not
Indianapolis, IN older children, introduce yourself to them eating as well, but had normal wet diapers.
first before the parents and sit down on No fever noted at home or on exam.
the bed or chair as to not tower over them. As mentioned above, it is important to
Try to facilitate the relationship and open observe the newborn. One of the best tips
In general, up communication by noticing something is to undress and hold the baby. Holding
cool about them (i.e. light-up shoes, Dora allows the clinician to assess multiple
when evaluating T-shirt or fun toy). things at once, including level of alertness,
While doing the actual physical exam, try respiratory status and tone. This initial
any child, to use the parents lap as much as possible assessment gives the clinician a good
observation is as the child is most comfortable there. To sense of sick or not sick.
distract and calm them, consider telling It is also important to have the baby
the best initial them a story throughout the exam or try undressed to do a careful examination,
to make the physical exam a game play looking for rashes, bruises, hair
diagnostic tool. with the instruments. Finally, consider tourniquets, etc. During the exam, this
having something fun in your pocket such newborn was observed to have an apneic
as stickers or a bubble-blowing pen to episode. The patient was admitted for
make the experience more enjoyable. an evaluation that ultimately revealed a
In general, when evaluating any child, diagnosis of pertussis.
observation is the best initial diagnostic
Infant
tool. The degree of alertness and
interaction, responsiveness to parents and Case 2: A 5-month-old male presented
respiratory status are all valuable measures with fever and fussiness. The patient
of illness that may either suggest or was seen five days earlier with fever and
eliminate concerns of toxicity. URI, diagnosed with otitis media and
discharged home with amoxicillin. Prior to
After observation, it is important to begin arrival, the patient had multiple episodes
the exam with auscultation of the heart of vomiting and decreased urine output.
and lungs as this is usually when the child
is calm, quiet and most cooperative. Do Initial assessment revealed an ill-
not forget that a negative lung auscultation appearing, febrile infant. While observing
is not sufficient to rule out significant the infant and beginning the physical
pulmonary disease; the appearance of the exam, it is important to place your hand on
patient (tachypnea, respiratory distress) is the infants head and assess the fontanelle.
much more predictive. A fontanelle is measured as full, flat, or
depressed. Cup your palm on the back of

34 EMResident
the babys head and then move forward. most from the childs spontaneous activity,
The curve of your palm should touch the including mental status, cranial nerves,
fontanelle if it is normal. If the fontanelle coordination, and motor status.
doesnt touch, it is depressed; if it pushes
Assess patients based on developmental
your hand up, it is full.
milestones for their age group. If
In young infants, a bulging fontanelle may age appropriate, make sure to watch
be seen with meningitis, but meningismus them walk. Also, watch the child sit
is rare before one year of age. Another unsupported as truncal instability may be a
possible exam finding in infants with clue to vertiginous symptoms or cerebellar
meningitis is a paradoxical response pathology. Try to carry one thing that
to consoling maneuvers like cuddling. could fake for a toy or draw a face on a Figure 2: Ear Exam
When a caregiver cuddles an infant, tongue depressor to help attract the childs
the meninges are stretched and irritated attention. cannot developmentally pinpoint the
making the infant more fussy. By contrast, location of abdominal pain until they are at
Upon examination of this patient, he had
the same infant will calm when laid flat. least four years old, and perhaps not even
right-sided weakness which resolved
This infants fontanelle was full and within an hour. The patient was diagnosed then. With symptoms and an exam that are
tense. Throughout the exam, the patient with Todds paralysis and new-onset nonspecific, abdominal pathology can be
was irritable and difficult to console. The seizure disorder. very difficult to diagnose in this age group.
infant was appropriately resuscitated and Attempt to calm and distract the patient as
underwent a full septic work-up, revealing Preschooler much as possible.
pneumococcal meningitis. Case 4: A 3-year-old female presents
For infants, make sure to have a pacifier
with abdominal pain and fever over the available during the abdominal exam.
Toddler past day. Patient has some vomiting Another option for the crying infant is to use
Case 3: An 18-month-old male presents and diarrhea. Emesis is nonbilious sucrose to calm them during auscultation
with complaint of seizure witnessed at and nonbloody. Diarrhea is watery and palpation. Flexing the hips will also
home 20 minutes prior to arrival. and yellow. The patient has also had facilitate relaxation and a better exam. For
decreased oral intake and urine output. On patients that are ticklish, you can have the
Many pediatric patients will present to
exam, the patient is febrile and appears child place their hand on yours and push
the emergency department after a seizure.
uncomfortable. down as if they are doing the exam.
When evaluating this patient, it is crucial to
do a good neurological exam. The biggest Performing a good abdominal exam is For children with abdominal pain, make sure
tip for the pediatric neurological exam is critical for the assessment of this patient, to always undress the patient and evaluate for
to stop, look and listen. You will learn the but can often be challenging. Children rashes to assure that diseases like Henoch-
Schnlein Purpura (HSP) are not missed.
Figure 1: Additional Tips & Tricks Also, referred pain is very common, and
General pneumonia or strep throat may present with
Always undress. abdominal pain of any location with focal or
Eyes diffuse pain on exam.
If trying to get a newborn to open their eyes, holding the infants head and dipping it down will cause Using the above techniques, the patient
them to open their eyes. in the case was found to have significant
Never try to pry a babys eyes open when they are crying as you will not be able to over power them and tenderness without rebound. Upon further
will just anger them more. evaluation, the patient was found to have
Infants should fix and follow a moving object with both eyes by 3 months of age. Use bright objects or acute appendicitis.
noises to help assess extraocular movements. The above tips and tricks should allow
Ears for a smoother encounter with the pediatric
If having a hard time looking in the ears, hold arms above head. patient. If the tactics are not working,
If unable to turn their head, wiggle the otoscope light in front of their eyes and then move it to the do your physical exam in stages. Start
opposite side of the ear you want to look in. The child will often track with the light and turn their head quickly with the most essential, then return
so their ear is then right in front of you. frequently to perform each additional
Have parent stabilize the head. Use one hand to grab the pinna while holding the otoscope with the layer. Always remember that a graceful
thumb and index finger and using the little finger and heel of the hand to stabilize the otoscope against approach will go a long way with assessing
the side of the face (See Figure 2).2 children.
Mouth/Throat References
Wetting the tongue depressor makes it taste better.
1. Langhan, M. et. al. How comfortable
Have the child pant like a dog when doing a throat swab as it helps prevent gagging. are emergency physicians with pediatric
Heart patients? J Emerg Med. 2004;26(4):465-469.
If worried about murmurs, gently and briefly blow in the face of a neonate which slows down their heart 2. Gifford, K, Fall, L. Pediatric Physical
rate momentarily so that you can better ausculate for murmurs. Exam. American Academy of Pediatrics.
Lungs 24 Apr 2008. http://www.aap.org/sections/
ypn/ms/educ_resources/PE%20pocket%20
If you want them to take a deep breath, can have them blow out the light on the otoscope or can ask
card%2012-18-07.doc.
them to pretend to blow out the birthday candles.

Ausgust/September 2008 35