7 questions about stethoscopes for beginners

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Who invented the stethoscope?

The stethoscope was invented by René Laennec in 1816.  However, Laennec’s invention didn’t look much like the stethoscopes of today.  It consisted of a hollow wooden tube, more like an ear trumpet or a very simple version of the Pinard, currently used in obstetric care.

Prior to the invention of the stethoscope, it was common practice for doctors to auscultate by pressing their ear to the patient’s chest wall.  Laennec’s invention was designed to spare his blushes when having to listen to the chests of his female patients.

How does a stethoscope work?

The chest piece (either bell or diaphragm) is held against the part of the body to be auscultated.  The sounds produced inside the body (e.g. heart sounds) cause vibrations either of the stethoscope’s diaphragm, or of the skin onto which the bell is placed.  These vibrations are transmitted up the hollow tubes to the ear pieces, where they are interpreted as sound by the user.

Where can I buy a stethoscope?

If you would like to try before you buy, your local medical supplies store is a good bet.  also have a wide range of stethoscopes available to purchase.

Which stethoscope should I buy?

Think about your pricepoint, level of use and future plans.  After all, a good stethoscope should last a few years, even with heavy use.  We like the Littmann Classic II as a beginner’s scope – but look around and decide what’s best for you.  Check out our stethoscope section for our thoughts on some of the best models available.

What does a chest infection sound like through a stethoscope?

A number of findings can alert the doctor to the presence of a chest infection.  Most often this takes the form of crackles (crepitations), although there can also be wheeze, bronchial breathing or – if an effusion is present – reduced or absent breath sounds in the affected area.

If you’d like to learn more, this book gives an overview of auscultation.

If you’re trying to self-diagnose – please visit your doctor instead.

Can you hear lung cancer through a stethoscope?

Certain sounds may be heard if lung cancer is present.  These include wheeze (if the tumour is obstructing an airway), reduced or absent breath sounds (if there is an associated effusion) or crepitations (if there is an associated infection).

These findings can be associated with many different conditions.  If you are concerned about lung cancer, you must speak to your doctor.

Why do doctors listen to your back with a stethoscope?

It’s actually easier to hear lung sounds at the back of the chest!  This is due to the shape of the rib cage and the way sound is projected.

If you’d like to learn more about using a stethoscope and clinical examination, MacLeod’s Clinical Examination is a great place to start (and has been used by generations of medical students).



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