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It is easy to take the stethoscope for granted when you consider the advancements in medical technology since its inception.

However, this vital diagnostic tool is over 200 years old and its place among healthcare professionals remains as solid as ever, (even if smart stethoscopes are consistently chasing at the heels).

Doctors, Nurses and Paramedics working in a range of environments rely on the stethoscope to efficiently carry out auscultation. Vets also use the stethoscope when diagnosing issues with our pets.

So in a salute to the ongoing importance of the humble acoustic stethoscope, let’s take a look at 5 interesting facts about it.

1. The invention of the stethoscope


We’ll start at the very beginning. A French doctor named René Laënnec invented the stethoscope back in 1816.

It was a simple design made from a wooden tube, that would be placed onto only one ear. This was a major leap from the way physicians listened to the lungs and hearts previously.

They would merely place their ear directly onto the patients chest in what was called immediate auscultation. They would then listen by gently tapping with fingers (a process called percussing the chest).

By the mid 1850s various important updates to the design included the development of the binaural device so that the stethoscope could be used with both ears. This is fundamentally the same design that remains in use today for the acoustic stethoscope.

Head here for an interesting paper from the Royal Society of Medicine about the evolution of the stethoscope.

2. How the Stethoscope Works

The diaphragm section of the stethoscope works in a similar way to the human eardrum. It vibrates in accordance to the movement that it detects. These vibrations then move the air inside the stethoscope tubing, which is finally picked up by the physician’s ears.

3. How Doctors and Nurses use the Stethoscope to Diagnose ailments

In the expert hands of a doctor or nurse, the stethoscope can very efficiently provide a diagnosis of a patient. The tool can be used to listen to lung, heart and bowel sounds in order for the healthcare worker to hear if anything is amiss.

The stethoscope is also used in conjunction with a sphygmomanometer in order to record blood pressure by listening to blood flow sounds.

4. The Components of the Modern Acoustic Stethoscope

working stethoscope

The modern stethoscopes comes in various guises however many features are universal. While dual head piece stethoscopes are commonly available, a popular type utilises a single head chestpiece with diaphragm and bell into one.

These ‘multi-frequency’ stethoscopes work by varying the pressure applied to the chestpiece. This allows the physician to hear different mid and low pitch sounds.

For more on how stethoscopes work and reviews on some of the best currently available, head here.

5. Stethoscope Best Practices

using stethoscope

Should you ever get your hands on a stethoscope one important thing to remember is that the ear tips should point forwards in your ears. This ensures that a natural path of sound can travel into your ears.

Of course you still need to know what you are listening for and this takes years of professional practice. (The Littmann website does provide some useful training guides along with a listening app that can be downloaded to help you learn however).

Hygeine is another big issue. A healthcare worker using a stethoscope should ensure that their tool is carefully cleaned after every patient contact.

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