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The stethoscope is an acoustic medical device for auscultation, or listening to the internal sounds of an animal or human body. It typically has a small disc-shaped resonator that is placed against the skin, and one or two tubes connected to two earpieces. A stethoscope can be used to listen to the sounds made by the heart, lungs or intestines, as well as blood flow in arteries and veins. In combination with a manual sphygmomanometer, it is commonly used when measuring blood pressure.
Less commonly, "mechanic's stethoscopes", equipped with rod shaped chestpieces, are used to listen to internal sounds made by machines (for example, sounds and vibrations emitted by worn ball bearings), such as diagnosing a malfunctioning automobile engine by listening to the sounds of its internal parts. Stethoscopes can also be used to check scientific vacuum chambers for leaks, and for various other small-scale acoustic monitoring tasks.
A stethoscope that intensifies auscultatory sounds is called a phonendoscope.
The stethoscope was invented in France in 1816 by René Laennec at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. It consisted of a wooden tube and was monaural. Laennec invented the stethoscope because he was not comfortable placing his ear directly onto a woman's chest to listen to her heart.:186 He observed that a rolled piece of paper, placed between the patient's chest and his ear, could amplify heart sounds without requiring physical contact. Laennec's device was similar to the common ear trumpet, a historical form of hearing aid; indeed, his invention was almost indistinguishable in structure and function from the trumpet, which was commonly called a "microphone". Laennec called his device the "stethoscope" (stetho- + -scope, "chest scope"), and he called its use "mediate auscultation", because it was auscultation with a tool intermediate between the patient's body and the physician's ear. (Today the word auscultation denotes all such listening, mediate or not.) The first flexible stethoscope of any sort may have been a binaural instrument with articulated joints not very clearly described in 1829. In 1840, Golding Bird described a stethoscope he had been using with a flexible tube. Bird was the first to publish a description of such a stethoscope but he noted in his paper the prior existence of an earlier design (which he thought was of little utility) which he described as the snake ear trumpet. Bird's stethoscope had a single earpiece.
In 1851, Irish physician Arthur Leared invented a binaural stethoscope and, in 1852, George Philip Cammann perfected the design of the stethoscope instrument (that used both ears) for commercial production, which has become the standard ever since. Cammann also wrote a major treatise on diagnosis by auscultation, which the refined binaural stethoscope made possible. By 1873, there were descriptions of a differential stethoscope that could connect to slightly different locations to create a slight stereo effect, though this did not become a standard tool in clinical practice.
Somerville Scott Alison described his invention of the stethophone at the Royal Society in 1858; the stethophone had two separate bells, allowing the user to hear and compare sounds derived from two discrete locations. This was used to do definitive studies on binaural hearing and auditory processing that advanced knowledge of sound localization and eventually lead to an understanding of binaural fusion.
The medical historian Jacalyn Duffin has argued that the invention of the stethoscope marked a major step in the redefinition of disease from being a bundle of symptoms, to the current sense of a disease as a problem with an anatomical system even if there are no noticeable symptoms. This re-conceptualization occurred in part, Duffin argues, because prior to stethoscopes, there were no non-lethal instruments for exploring internal anatomy.
Rappaport and Sprague designed a new stethoscope in the 1940s, which became the standard by which other stethoscopes are measured, consisting of two sides, one of which is used for the respiratory system, the other for the cardiovascular system. The Rappaport-Sprague was later made by Hewlett-Packard. HP's medical products division was spun off as part of Agilent Technologies, Inc., where it became Agilent Healthcare. Agilent Healthcare was purchased by Philips which became Philips Medical Systems, before the walnut-boxed, $300, original Rappaport-Sprague stethoscope was finally abandoned ca. 2004, along with Philips' brand (manufactured by Andromed, of Montreal, Canada) electronic stethoscope model. The Rappaport-Sprague model stethoscope was heavy and short (18–24 in (46–61 cm)) with an antiquated appearance recognizable by their two large independent latex rubber tubes connecting an exposed leaf-spring-joined pair of opposing F-shaped chrome-plated brass binaural ear tubes with a dual-head chest piece.
Stethoscopes are a symbol of healthcare professionals. Healthcare providers are often seen or depicted wearing a stethoscope around the neck. A 2012 research paper claimed that the stethoscope, when compared to other medical equipment, had the highest positive impact on the perceived trustworthiness of the practitioner seen with it.
Prevailing opinions on the utility of the stethoscope in current clinical practice vary depending on the medical specialty. Studies have shown that auscultation skill (i.e., the ability to make a diagnosis based on what is heard through a stethoscope) has been in decline for some time, such that some medical educators are working to re-establish it.
In general practice, traditional blood pressure measurement using a mechanical sphygmomanometer with inflatable cuff and stethoscope is gradually being replaced with automated blood pressure monitors.
Stethoscopes usually have rubber earpieces, which aid comfort and create a seal with the ear, improving the acoustic function of the device. Stethoscopes can be modified by replacing the standard earpieces with moulded versions, which improve comfort and transmission of sound. Moulded earpieces can be cast by an audiologist or made by the stethoscope user from a kit.
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