Types of Stethoscopes: Understanding Your Options in 2021

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Choosing the right stethoscope for the needs of your career can seem like a daunting task.

With so many options available, it’s hard to know which one is best suited to what you want to do. Every type of stethoscope stands out in some way, as every type has been designed to solve some problem or improve some facet of auscultation.

This article will help you understand the different types of stethoscopes on the market and how they differ from each other.

See Also: The Top 10 Affordable Stethoscopes for Students

Types of Stethoscope Chest-pieces

Head Types

There are three head types when it comes to stethoscopes: Single, Double, and Triple. These head types describe the form and use of the chestpiece. We’ll explain the advantages of each below.

Single-Head Stethoscopes

A single-head stethoscope is the most popular type of stethoscope. Single head stethoscopes are ideal for general purposes like listening to vital signs, the lungs, or the heart.

single head chestpiece stethoscope

Single head stethoscopes tend to provide a wide spectrum of sound, which allows the person using them to focus on either the higher or lower end of the acoustic spectrum. These can be used for traditional medical purposes and to listen for bowel sounds, heart murmurs, lung sounds, and more.

Advantages:

  • With only one head option, the single head stethoscope is usually less expensive than a more complicated double or triple head design.
  • Additionally, gaining experience and skill with having only one head type can lead to quicker results in diagnosis.

Disadvantages:

  • Typically the single head stethoscope is less sensitive than a double or triple head so it’s not as effective for hearing high-frequency sounds and murmurs that are hard to hear.
  • This type of stethoscope can be difficult when trying to listen for lung sounds on an infant, obese person, or a person with an abnormal chest shape.

Double-Head Stethoscopes

Dual head stethoscopes are designed with 2 heads; one on each side of the chest piece.

double head stethoscope

The bigger head, also known as the diaphragm, is flat and works better for higher frequency sounds.

The smaller head, also known as the bell, looks more like an elongated cup and works best on low-frequency sounds.

Advantages:

  • The dual-head lets you listen to the left and right sides with one earpiece.
  • If you’re looking for a stethoscope to use in an emergency situation, this type of stethoscope might be suitable because it can help provide a quick diagnosis.

Disadvantages:

  • The dual-head lets you listen at the left and right side with one earpiece which means the sound will be split into two channels and it might not provide a clear diagnosis.

Some physicians prefer a dual head stethoscope, as it provides the benefits of a chest piece for adults and an earpiece for younger patients.

For doctors and nurses who need versatility, this type of stethoscope may be best suited for them.

Triple-Head Stethoscopes

The rarest of the three stethoscope head options, triple-headed stethoscopes share a single chest piece and have three listening heads.

triple head stethoscope

A triple-head stethoscope is specifically designed to accentuate important sounds, enabling you to hear cardiac, pulmonary, and vascular sounds without relying on difficult variable-pressure techniques.

Advantages:

  • Less reliance on the skill of the user
  • Accentuates sounds that might otherwise be very difficult to properly auscultate

Disadvantages:

  • More expensive than other stethoscopes
  • The added weight and awkward form factors

This design is heavier and can be awkward to use, limiting its use to applications such as critical cardiac assessment, where the ability to precisely target sounds during cardiac auscultation becomes important.

Most doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals use a standard single or double head model.

The Different Types of Stethoscopes

There are a variety of stethoscopes on the market today, each suited for different needs and different patients. Here we’ll review the many types of stethoscopes.

Cardiology Stethoscopes

The cardiology stethoscope is designed for diagnosing heart problems. They focus on providing excellent acoustics for cardiac assessments, they help the physician to target and distinguish between the many different sounds of the heart for the most precise diagnosis.

These types of stethoscopes often focus on hearing quality at the expense of other features and conveniences, such as comfort and affordability.

Both single head and double head chest pieces are typically available. These are what most think when we refer to a traditional stethoscope.

Pediatric Stethoscopes

Pediatric stethoscopes are designed for use on children and infants.

A pediatric stethoscope looks just like a regular stethoscope, except that the chest piece is scaled down to be proportional to pediatric patients. Sometimes this is provided in the form of an attachment, as seen below:

MDF Stethoscope Attachments

Even though a regular-sized stethoscope can be used for small patients, it becomes more difficult to properly position the chest piece when auscultating heart and lung sounds.

The smaller size of pediatric stethoscopes allows for more accurate diagnosis on small patients.

Most pediatric stethoscopes also feature a no-chill ring and are typically manufactured using non-latex materials to avoid patient allergies and sensitivities.

Two additional types of Pediatric Stethoscopes are commonly referenced:

Infant Stethoscopes

Just like Pediatric stethoscopes, but designed specifically for infants.

These stethoscopes use even smaller chest pieces.

Neonatal Stethoscopes

A neonatal stethoscope is sized the smallest for newborn patients.

This type of stethoscope offers the smallest diameter of chest pieces available. Keeping in proportion with the patient, some are as small as 2cm.

This allows for accurate auscultation without excess ambient noise.

Electronic Stethoscopes

The electronic stethoscope, also called a digital stethoscope, is a newer technology that is quickly gaining in popularity and market share.

electronic stethoscope

An electronic stethoscope takes the vibrations of auscultation sounds and converts them from a physical signal to an electronic one. This signal is then typically optimized by software for better listening and diagnosis.

Many of these electronic stethoscopes feature the ability to reduce or cancel background noise, improving clarity for use in loud environments.

Additionally, some models provide the ability to record and visualize auscultation sounds and transmit them to the cloud for later review.

Smart Stethoscopes

Most electronic stethoscopes are designed like a traditional stethoscope- a chestpiece connected to tubing, sending auscultation sound waves physically up to the ear.

A few devices—such as the Thinklabs One Digital Stethoscope— stand out as being unique. The Thinklabs One is actually an electronic chestpiece that you plug headphones into; the sound signals that it transmits are entirely electronic.

smart stethoscope

Electronic stethoscopes typically come in two varieties – battery-powered or rechargeable. Although, some variants exist that merely plug into a typical stethoscope.

While smart stethoscopes come with the drawbacks of requiring battery power, there is a significant upside: unparalleled sound amplification. 20x, 40x, even up to 100x sound amplification can be found on some models.

Additionally, software to remove interference and apply sound-canceling is unique to this class of stethoscopes, and each year we’re seeing better and better improvements in this arena.

Stethoscopes for Hearing Impaired

A stethoscope designed for the hearing impaired is an amplified version of a regular stethoscope.

This type of stethoscope typically uses electronic amplification to increase sound volume. These often come with their own headphones – like other types of smart stethoscopes.

Hearing Impaired Stethoscope

There is a good deal of crossover between these and electronic stethoscopes and smart stethoscopes.

Additionally, in noisy environments, it’s difficult for doctors wearing traditional stethoscopes to hear heart and lung sounds. Amplified stethoscopes for the hearing impaired offer a way around this challenge.

Veterinary Stethoscopes

Many veterinarians will use a traditional stethoscope. However, most stethoscopes available on the market are designed and sized for human use.

Veterinarians may have to deal with the challenge of auscultating larger animals. This can make traditional stethoscopes difficult to work with.

In these cases, veterinarians may opt for a veterinary stethoscope. These are designed and sized specifically for animals in their care.

veterinary stethoscope

They typically feature longer tubing that’s necessary if you’re trying to hear heart rate on larger mammals such as horses or cows. Also, the chestpieces used for these stethoscopes cab be found in larger or smaller diameters.

Teaching Stethoscopes

A teaching stethoscope is a traditional stethoscope that has been modified for use in the classroom. Teaching stethoscopes are also used by instructors in clinical settings as a part of their job.

Teaching stethoscopes typically use a y-connector to split the tubing to allow for two sets of binaurals, one for the teacher and one for the student to listen in on.

teaching stethoscope

Some models provide even more sets of binaurals!

three student teaching stethoscope

It’s one thing to read about a midsystolic click, it’s another to hear one alongside your instructor.

Lightweight Stethoscopes

Lightweight stethoscopes are typically used in emergency situations.

These include fast-paced ambulances, the operating room, and urgent care facilities where time is of the essence and you cannot afford to fumble with extra parts. These are also useful in environments that make traditional stethoscopes cumbersome to work with.

These devices generally feature a single handheld diaphragm or bell chestpiece, with no extra parts or unnecessary options. It’s a streamlined design that makes it easy to work with during emergency situations.

They feature lower-weight materials such as aluminum or titanium.

Sprague Rappaport Stethoscopes

A Sprague Rappaport stethoscope is a traditional double-tube stethoscope with an attached bell chestpiece. The difference between Sprague and other types of stethoscopes is that the sound tubes are fixed to each side of the bell, rather than connected in parallel.

Sprague Rappaport Stethoscope

This design makes it easier for doctors to hear heart sounds coming from all angles.

Sprague Rappaport stethoscopes are often used in pediatrics, where the patient is small and lying down. In these cases, it can be difficult to hear heart sounds when using a traditional stethoscope with sound tubes that connect at an angle on one side of the bell chestpiece.

Since there is twice as much tubing on a Sprague Rappaport Stethoscope, these can feel a bit heavier.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this blog post has helped inform you about the different types of stethoscopes available on the market.

If you’re ready to take a look at the best stethoscopes available on the market, check out our ultimate guide to buying a stethoscope!

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