nursing head to toe assessment

What is more nerve racking that completing your first head to toe assessment of a patient?  It seems like there is so much information to remember.  Your nursing instructor is standing watch as you are going through the head to toe assessment routine.

Then you start having all of these different thoughts go through your mind:  Did I listen to lung sounds?  Did I check their pulses?  What am I forgetting?

This is the guide to doing a simple, yet thorough, head to toe assessment of your patient.  Work through your assessment by body systems, literally head to toe, or whatever way works best for you.

Eventually all of this will become second nature and you can help others to be able to carefully monitor their patients through their assessment skills.

Nursing Head to Toe Assessment

I remember when I was in nursing school that I was SO nervous about doing my head to toe assessments! The first head to toe assessment I did, I forgot to listen to lung sounds. Pretty embarrassing! Have any of you felt this way as you’ve done your assessments?

I now work in an intensive care unit and do head to toe assessments at least every four hours. Practice definitely helps to make your assessment a habit! There are so many details to keep track of.

Being able to communicate all of this information to the following nurse can be just as daunting. I have created a report sheet found here titled, “Basic Head to Toe Assessment: Overview.” Doing a thorough assessment and giving a good report are both very important skills to develop!

What I’ve learned is that the best assessments are organized by body systems. Here is an example of a head to toe assessment narrative. All of this information should be gathered during your assessment. Here’s my advice for each body system and how to approach your head-to-toe assessment:

Neurological: There is a HUGE variety of neurological tests that can be performed. This is my basic testing that I do on all of my patients regardless of why they are in the hospital. If any of these are lacking, more investigation should be done into why the patient has this deficit. 

  • Is the patient in any kind of pain? Where and what type?
  • Are the patient’s pupils equal, round, and reactive to light?
  • Is the patient alert & oriented to person (ask their name), place (where are you?), time (ask the month and year), and situation (do you know what brought you to the hospital?).
  • Can they move all extremities well?
  • Can they squeeze your hands tightly with both of their hands?
  • What about applying pressure with their feet?
  • Is their speech clear?
  • Do they have any numbness or tingling?

Respiratory: Respiratory can be either a very simple or a very complicated body system to discuss. It can be as simple as, “This patient’s lung sounds are clear and they are on room air. No respiratory deficits noted.” It can also be as complicated to include ventilators, chest tubes, and oscillators. For your basic respiratory assessment, here are the questions you should be asking yourself: 

  • Assess their lung sounds. Do they sound clear, coarse, wheezy, rhonchorous (it sounds like there is a LOT of fluid moving around), or decreased (not much air moving)?
  • Is their respiratory rate normal (12-20 breaths/minute)? Are they having difficulty breathing?
  • How much oxygen is the patient requiring?
  • Do they have a cough? If so, what are they coughing up?
  • Do they have a sore throat?

Cardiovascular: The heart can be a very complicated organ if it wants to be. There are your four heart valves, four chambers, septums, and arteries and veins attached to complicate things even more. The heart is also one of the most fascinating organs because of the ability it has to pump thousands of gallons of blood through your body every day. Here are the things to think about in your basic cardiac assessment:

  • Assess the patient’s heart tones. Is there a clear S1/S2 (meaning the “lub dub” sound)?
  • Are there any murmurs (not a clear “lub dub” from issues with heart valves), rubs (sounds like friction of heart rubbing), or gallops (sounds like a horse galloping)?
  • What is the patient’s heart rate and rhythm?
  • How is the patient’s blood pressure?
  • Are they on any medications to affect their blood pressure?
  • How are their radial and pedal pulses?
  • What is their capillary refill time?
  • Do they have a temperature?
  • Are they flushed?
  • Does the patient have any edema?
  • Are they wearing sequential compression devices to prevent deep venous thrombi from forming?
  • What IVs does the patient have? What is infusing through them?

Gastrointestinal: Isn’t the GI system just our favorite? I have realized that the ICU is full of GI. Don’t sign up for my specialty unless you are ready for lots of secretions and fluids!

  • Assess bowel sounds. Are they present, hyperactive, hypoactive, or absent?
  • What is the patient’s diet order?
  • Are they having any nausea or vomiting?
  • Do they have an nasogastric (NG) tube or gastrostomy tube (G-tube)?
  • If he has tube feeds infusing, what have the residuals been? (Residuals are checked by putting a 50 mL syringe into the NG tube and pulling back whatever contents are in the stomach.)
  • When was their last bowel movement? What did this look like?
  • Do they have a colostomy or ileostomy? 

Genitourinary: How much urine output a patient has tells you about a variety of different things. The causes of low urine output could be because of acute kidney injury, low blood pressure, infection, and ureter obstruction among other causes. If a patient’s urine output has decreased, once again ask yourself, “Why?”Some basics in your assessment include asking the following:

  • Does the patient have a Foley catheter in place?
  • If so, what is their urine output? If not, then when did they last urinate?
  • Any pain with urination?
  • What does the urine look like?

Integumentary (Skin): During my assessment, I look over the patient’s skin. Note that the most common places for skin abnormalities and breakdown are where bony prominences come into contact with surfaces. 

  • Are there any rashes, bruises, or other abnormalities?
  • How is the temperature of their skin?
  • Do they have any drains?
  • What is draining and how much?
  • Do they have any wounds or pressure sores?
  • What dressings are in place for these wounds?

Psychological/Social: Depending on the unit you are working on, the psychological assessment may be very short to very in depth. If you are taking care of a suicidal or bipolar person then your assessment will be much lengthier. 

  • How is the patient coping with their situation?
  • Are they calm, aggressive, anxious, combative, frightened, etc.?
  • How is their family coping with this situation?

Good luck to all of you as you do your head to toe assessments! Practice makes perfect! For more information about nursing basics, check out http://www.fromnewtoicu.com. This has lots more information just like this head to toe assessment post whether it be chest tubes, how to start an IV, or how to insert an NG tube! If you are looking for a nursing program, there are also hundreds of nursing school reviews with information about prerequisite courses, GPA requirements, tuition, and much more! Good luck with your nursing searches!