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Techniques & Technologies

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Palpation

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Palpation means exploring through touch. Medical practitioners in many traditions feel the patient’s body with their hands to detect abnormalities, locate pain or apply an instrument in the right place. Hippocratic physicians in ancient Greece recommended palpation of the patient’s abdomen to detect hardening or pain. The method went out of fashion with the rising social class of doctors in medieval and early modern Europe. Here, medicine was no longer a craft but an academic discipline taught at universities. Doctors were supposed to be engaged in intellectual rather than manual labour; they considered hands-on activities such as palpation beneath them. Some doctors were exceptions: the Italian professor of anatomy Giovanni Battista Morgagni palpated both male and female patients in his diagnostic efforts to locate anatomical causes of diseases.

Palpation is once more a routine part of medical diagnosis. New technologies supplement hands-on ‘haptic’ palpation with ‘virtual palpation’ through computer-aided imaging.

Bibliography

M Nicolson, ‘The art of diagnosis: medicine and the five senses’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 801-25

S J Reiser, ‘The science of diagnosis: diagnostic technology’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 826-51

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