1 History and examination

Chapter 1

History and examination

Laura Mitchell

David A. Mitchell

Lorna McCaul


Relevant pages in other chapters It could, of course, be said that all pages are relevant to this section, because history and examination are the first steps in the care of any patient. However, as that is hardly helpful, the reader is referred specifically to the following: dental charting, p. 734; medical conditions, Chapter 11; the child with toothache, p. 60; pre-operative management of the dental patient, p. 538; the cranial nerves, p. 508; orthodontic assessment, p. 126; pulpal pain, p. 220.

Principal sources Experience.

Listen, look, and learn

Much of what you need to know about any individual patient can be obtained by watching them enter the surgery and sit in the chair, their body language during the interview, and a few well-chosen questions (Chapter 16). One of the great secrets of health care is to develop the ability to actually listen to what your patients tell you and to use that information. Doctors and dentists are often concerned that if they allow patients to speak rather than answer questions, history-taking will prove inefficient and prolonged. In fact, most patients will give the information necessary to make a provisional diagnosis, and further useful personal information, if allowed to speak uninterrupted. Most will lapse into silence after 2–3min of monologue. History-taking should be conducted with the patient sitting comfortably; this rarely equates with supine! In order to produce an all-round history it is, however, customary and frequently necessary to resort to directed questioning, here are a few hints:

Always introduce yourself to the patient and any accompanying person, and explain, if it is not immediately obvious, what your role is in helping them.
Remember that patients are (usually) neither medically nor dentally trained, so use plain speech without speaking down to them.
Questions are a key part of history-taking and the manner in which they are asked can lead to a quick diagnosis and a trusting patient, or abject confusion with a potential litigant. Leading questions should, by and large, be avoided as they impose a preconceived idea upon the patient. This is also a problem when the question suggests the answer, e.g. ‘is the pain worse when you drink hot drinks?’ To avoid this, phrase questions so that a descriptive reply rather than a straight yes or no is required. However, with the more reticent patient it may be necessary to ask leading questions to elicit relevant information.
Notwithstanding earlier paragraphs, you will sometimes find it necessary to interrupt patients in full flight during a detailed monologue on their grandmother’s sick parrot. Try to do this tactfully, e.g. ‘but to come more up to date’ or ‘this is rather difficult—please slow down and let me understand how this affects the problem you have come about today’.

Specifics of a medical or dental history are described on pp. 6 and 4. The object is to elicit sufficient information to make a provisional diagnosis for the patient whilst establishing a mutual rapport, thus facilitating further investigations and/or treatment.

Presenting complaint

The aim of this part of the history is to have a provisional differential diagnosis even before examining the patient. The following is a suggested outline, which would require modifying according to the circumstances:

C/O (complaining of) in the patient’s own words. Use a general introductory question, e.g. ‘Why did you come to see us today? What is the problem?’


‘What brought you here today?’ unless you want to give them the chance to make a joke about transport or car parking.

If symptoms are present:

Onset and pattern

When did the problem start? Is it getting better, worse or staying the same?


How often, how long does it last? Does it occur at any particular time of day or night.

Exacerbating and relieving factors

What makes it better, what makes it worse? What started it?

If pain is the main symptom:

Origin and radiation

Where is the pain and does it spread?

Character and intensity

How would you describe the pain: sharp, shooting, dull, aching, etc. This can be difficult, but patients with specific ‘organic’ pain will often understand exactly what you mean whereas patients with symptoms with a high behavioural overlay will be vague and prevaricate.


Is there anything, in your own mind, which you associate with the problem?

The majority of dental problems can quickly be narrowed down using a simple series of questions such as these to create a provisional diagnosis and judge the urgency of the problem.

The dental history

It is important to assess the patient’s dental awareness and the likelihood of raising it. A dental history may also provide invaluable clues as to the nature of the presenting complaint and should not be ignored. This can be achieved by some simple general questions:

How often do you go to the dentist?

(this gives information on motivation, likely attendance patterns, and may indicate patients who change their GDP frequently)
When did you last see a dentist and what did he do?

(this may give clues as to the diagnosis of the presenting complaint, e.g. a recent RCT)
How often do you brush your teeth and how long for?

(motivation and likely gingival condition)
Have you ever had any pain or clicking from your jaw joints?

(TMJ pathology)
Do you grind your teeth or bite your nails?

(TMPDS, personality)
How do you feel about dental treatment?

(dental anxiety)
What do you think about the appearance of your teeth?

(motivation, need for orthodontic treatment)
What is your job?

(socio-economic status, education)
Where do you live?

(fluoride intake, travelling time to surgery)
What types of dental treatment have you had previously?

(previous extractions, problems with LA or GA, orthodontics, periodontal treatment)
What are your favourite drinks/foods?

(caries rate, erosion)

The medical history

There is much to be said for asking patients to complete a medical history questionnaire, as this encourages more accurate responses to sensitive questions. However, it is important to use this as a starting point, and clarify the answers with the patient.

Example of a medical questionnaire

QUESTION                        YES/NO

Are you fit and well?

Have you ever been admitted to hospital?

If yes, please give brief details:

Have you ever had an operation?

If so, were there any problems?

Have you ever had any heart trouble or high blood pressure?

Have you ever had any chest trouble?

Have you ever had any problems with bleeding?

Have you ever had asthma, eczema, hayfever?

Are you allergic to penicillin?

Are you allergic to any other drug or substance?

Have you ever had:

rheumatic fever?
other infectious disease?

Are you pregnant?

Are you taking any drugs, medications, or pills?

If yes, please give details: (see Chapter 12)

Who is your General Medical Practitioner (GMP)?

image Check the medical history at each recall.

image If in any doubt contact the patient’s GMP, or the specialist they areattending, before proceeding.

NB A complete medical history (as required when clerking in-patients) would include details of the patient’s family history (for familial disease) and social history (for factors associated with disease, e.g. smoking, drinking, and for home support on discharge). It would be completed by a systematic enquiry:


chest pain, palpitations, breathlessness.


breathlessness, wheeze, cough—productive or not.


appetite and eating, pain, distension, and bowel habit.


pain, frequency (day and night), incontinence, straining, or dribbling.

Central nervous system

fits, faints, and headaches.

Screening for medical problems in dental practice

Certain conditions are so commonplace and of such significance that screening (specifically looking for asymptomatic markers of disease) is justifiable. Whether or not it is appropriate to use the dental practice environment to screen for hypertension, smoking or drug and alcohol abuse is very much a cultural, personal and pragmatic decision for the dentist.

What is crucial is that if you choose to initiate say a screening policy for hypertension in practice (i.e. you measure every adult’s blood pressure) you must ensure you are adequately trained in the technique, are aware of and avoid the risk of inducing disease (people get anxious at the dentist and may have ‘white coat hypertension’ which is of no significance) and act on significant results in a meaningful way. Generating a cohort of ‘worried well’ who then overload their GMP is hardly helpful whereas detecting significant hypertension in an unsuspecting middle age man who then has this corrected, could be.

Medical examination

For the vast majority of dental patients attending as out-patients to a practice, community centre, or hospital, simply recording a medical history should suffice to screen for any potential problems. The exceptions are patients who are to undergo general anaesthesia and anyone with a positive medical history undergoing extensive treatment under LA or sedation. The aim in these cases is to detect any gross abnormality so that it can be dealt with (by investigation, by getting a more experienced or specialist opinion, or by simple treatment if you are completely familiar with the problem). This is a summary, for more detail see ‘In-patients’ Chapter 11.


Look at sclera in good light for jaundice & anaemia. Cyanosis, peripheral: blue extremities, central: blue tongue. Dehydration, lift skin between thumb and forefinger.

Cardiovascular system

Feel and time the pulse. Measure blood pressure. Listen to the heart sounds along the left sternal edge and the apex (normally 5th intercostal space midclavicular line on the left), murmurs are whooshing sounds between the ‘lup dub’ of the normal heart sounds. Palpate peripheral pulses and look at the neck for a prominent jugular venous pulse (this is difficult and takes much practice).

Respiratory system

Look at the respiratory rate (12–18/min), is expansion equal on both sides? Listen to the chest, is air entry equal on both sides, are there any crackles or wheezes indicating infection, fluid, or asthma? Percuss the back, comparing resonance.

Gastrointestinal system

With the patient lying supine and relaxed with hands by their sides, palpate with the edge of the hand for liver (upper right quadrant) and spleen (upper left quadrant). These should be just palpable on inspiration. Also palpate bimanually for both kidneys in the right and left flanks (healthy kidneys are not palpable) and note any masses, scars, or hernia. Listen for bowel sounds and palpate for a full bladder.

Genitourinary system

Mostly covered by abdominal examination above. Patients with genitourinary symptoms are more likely to go into post-operative urinary retention. Pelvic and rectal examinations are neither appropriate nor indicated and should not be conducted by the non-medically qualified.

Central nervous system

Is the patient alert and orientated in time, place, and person? Examination of the cranial nerves, p. 508. Ask the patient to move their limbs through a range of movements, then repeat passively and against resistance to assess tone, power, and mobility. Reflexes: brachioradialis, biceps, triceps, knee, ankle, and plantar are commonly elicited (stimulation of the sole normally causes plantar flexion of the great toe).

Musculoskeletal system

Note limitations in movement and arthritis, especially affecting the cervical spine, which may need to be hyperextended in order to intubate for anaesthesia.

Jan 5, 2015 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on 1 History and examination
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