Stethoscopes are an essential part of any doctor’s uniform. If you go to a hospital or medical care center, you are sure to see one hanging around the necks of every doctor and nurse. These tools are used to listen to your heartbeat, breathing, and other bodily sounds, and can signal to doctors that something unusual is going on inside your body.

But where do stethoscopes come from and why are they considered such an important tool?

Humble Beginnings

The origins of the stethoscope take us all the way back to France in the 1860s. To avoid putting his ear on a female patient’s chest in order to hear her heartbeat, a French doctor named Rene Laennec created the first version of the stethoscope by rolling up a paper tube and using it as a funnel. Not only did this solve the problem, but Dr. Laennec realized that it amplified the sounds in the woman’s chest. He called this simple invention a “stethoscope,” from the Greek words stethos (chest) and skopein (to view or see).

The elementary first design was soon improved, with later versions of the rolled-up tube looking like thin wooden funnels that featured one end that was larger than the other.

Doctors would use this version of the stethoscope for 25 years before and Irish physician named Arthur Leared created a more complex model with two earpieces (called binaural) on the ends of stiff metal tubes. George P. Camman in New York then began widely selling this version.

At first, the medical community did not want to use the model with two earpieces because they were unsure if the two earpieces would produce consistent results. Eventually, however, the newer type became widely accepted until, a hundred years later, another inventor made improvements to this design.

A New Age

As the popularity of the binaural stethoscope took off, Scottish doctor Somerville Scott Allison designed a similar instrument called a “stethophone” that used two “bells” (or the part of the stethoscope that the doctor presses against a patient’s body) to listen to different parts of the body at the same time, such as the heart and the lungs.

By the 1940s, the most common style of stethoscope included these two different bells connected to two large, rubber tubes that then attached to metal ear tubes. This design was heavy and difficult to carry around, but it was not until the 1960s that a lighter model would come around.

Littmann and Modern Design

In 1961, Harvard Medical School professor and cardiologist Dr. David Littmann described what he wanted in an ideal stethoscope in the American Medical Association journal. He described a device with an open chest piece for low-pitched sounds, a closed piece for higher pitched sounds, firm tubing in the “shortest length possible,” a spring to hold the earpieces together when they are not in use, and for the device to be lightweight.

Littmann was successful in creating his vision. Modern day stethoscopes can listen to lower or higher pitched noises by adjusting the pressure of the bell against the patient’s body. Today, nurses and doctors around the world use Littmann’s design and his brand is one of the most popular.

The stethoscope is a simple tool using basic physics to amplify noise within the body. However, the impact of the tool is great, and there is no doubt that many healthcare professionals throughout history have made diagnoses they otherwise would not have been able to. The chest can be difficult to hear through, and before the invention of the stethoscope, chest diseases were the number one killer. The invention allowed doctors to make quicker diagnosis, an impact that exists to this day despite having higher tech tools.

What Is your doctor listening for?

As part of a physical exam, your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. If you have pneumonia, your lungs may make crackling, bubbling and rumbling sounds when you inhale. If your healthcare provider hears a crackling noise that sounds a bit like velcro, they might run more tests to determine if you have pulmonary fibrosis.

While pocket-sized devices exist now that can provide a more complete picture of what is going on, there are still situations in which using a stethoscope is more ideal. For example, pregnant people may avoid chest X-rays and CT scans during their pregnancy. A stethoscope can help doctors assess if a patient’s shortness of breath can be attributed to asthma or pneumonia without exposing the pregnant patient to even small doses of radiation.

If you are experiencing any warning signs of lung disease – such as a chronic cough, shortness of breath, excess mucus, wheezing, coughing up blood or chronic chest pain – speak with your healthcare provider right away. You can rest assured that they will use the stethoscope to help determine what is going on in your lungs.

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