Doctors generally say “turn your head and cough” during a hernia exam. They are generally required to put their fingers near the top of the testicles on a male patient and instruct him to cough because if a hernia is present it can be felt bulging from the lower abdomen. Men may be asked to turn their heads so that the cough is directed away from the doctor, especially if they are sick with a communicable disease.
Hernia tests may be done as part of a routine physical or if a man believes he may have a hernia due to severe pain or other symptoms. A hernia is a condition in which part of the intestines begin bulging out of the abdominal cavity through susceptible areas. These areas include the belly button in men and women, and the area where the testicles meet the body in men. When a man is told to “turn your head and cough” it is generally so that the action of coughing will make any potential hernia easier to detect.
Some doctors may not use this phrase and instead instruct patients to cover their mouths or simply to cough. Covering the mouth is often a safer alternative because germs may still become airborne and infect other individuals, even if the patient’s head is turned away from any other people in the room. Patients who have a known illness, such as the common cold or influenza, should always cover their mouths while coughing.
It also been said that doctors instruct patients to “turn your head and cough” in order to put the spine in a better position for checking for hernia or to somehow make a hernia easier to feel. Most physicians do not support this theory, although turning one's head does not do any harm if it makes either the patient or doctor feel better to do so. In the majority of cases, the act of coughing itself is enough to indicate a hernia.
The phrase “turn your head and cough” is well known, even among those who have never heard it spoken by their own doctors. It has been used in a variety of comedy sketches, stories, and other media outlets to illustrate the discomfort associated with becoming unclothed in a doctor’s office during the exam. It has also been used in movies during comic scenes.