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Why the Health Care Provider Presses Your Belly

Why the Health Care Provider Presses Your Belly

For those trained in examining the body, pressing on your belly can provide major clues to possible problems.

The external exam with the hands gives health care providers information about important parts of the body like the liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, pancreas, bladder, gallbladder, appendix, abdominal aorta (the major blood vessel from your heart to your legs), and in females, the uterus and ovaries.

When the health care provider presses on your belly, he or she is feeling to see if any of these are puffy or sore, making them painful to touch. This could be a sign of disease.

Health care providers use 2 different ways to examine your belly:

  • Palpation

  • Percussion

A diagnosis is hardly ever made from only a physical exam of the belly, but a physical exam can turn up findings that are uncommon. More exams or testing may be needed.


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 and should be only an inch wide. If it is wider than that, there could be a problem like an aneurysm.

The health care 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 indicates that the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity is inflamed. This often happens when the appendix becomes diseased, the bowel has a hole, or there is inflammation in the lining of the belly.

The health care provider can often feel whether certain internal organs (like the liver, spleen, or uterus) are enlarged. 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 health care 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 extend could be a sign of an enlarged liver. Percussion can sometimes find fluid in the abdominal cavity. This is often a result of heart, liver, or kidney disease.

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