A pelvic exam is an evaluation through which a doctor can look for signs of illness in the reproductive organs of a woman’s body. In this exam, the organs which are inspected include the vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, vulva and uterus. Pelvic exams are performed routinely at public and private healthcare providers at their offices or clinics.
Although there are no specific guidelines on how often a woman should have a pelvic exam, it is recommended once a year. A doctor can suggest you have them more frequently, depending on your medical history.
It is recommended that women have their first pelvic exam at the age of 21 unless it is required earlier due to other health issues. The first pelvic exam is usually conducted when a young woman goes to seek birth control.
Regular pelvic exams are important for women over the age of 21. Some of the other reasons for this exam can include:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Having a family history of cancer
- Concern regarding ovarian cancer, cysts, sexually transmitted diseases as well as other gynecological problems
Sometimes a doctor might perform the exam before they prescribe birth control.
You need not do anything special to prepare for this exam. For your comfort you can however, schedule your pelvic exam on a day when you are not having your period. You may also be more comfortable if you empty your bladder before your exam.
If you have any questions regarding the exam or its results, you may want to write them down and take them to the appointment so that you remember to ask them.
The exam is performed in your doctor’s office, and it requires only a few minutes. First, you will need to change your clothes into a gown. Before the pelvic exam is done, your doctor might listen to your lungs and your heart as well as perform an abdominal, back and breast exam.
You will need to lie on your back on the exam table with your knees bent and your feet placed on the corners. You might be asked to slide your body toward the end of the table and let the knees fall open.
The exam generally includes:
- External visual exam- First, your doctor looks at your vulva, to check for irritation, sores, redness, swelling or any other abnormalities.
- Internal visual exam- Next, your doctor uses a speculum to spread open your vaginal walls and see your vagina and cervix. The speculum might be warmed before your doctor inserts it, to make it comfortable for you.
Inserting and opening the speculum can cause pressure which might cause discomfort for some women. You need to relax as much as you can to ease discomfort, but let your doctor know if you feel pain.
- Pap test- If your pelvic exam includes a Pap test, then your doctor will need to swipe a small wand for collecting a sample of your cervical cells before removing the speculum.
- Physical exam- Your pelvic organs, including your uterus and ovaries, can’t be seen from outside your body. Therefore, for this part of the exam, your doctor will need to feel (palpate) your abdomen. Your doctor will need to insert two lubricated, gloved fingers into your vagina with one hand, while with his other one he will press gently on the outside of your lower abdomen.
During this part of the exam, your doctor will be checking the size and shape of your uterus, ovaries and note any tender areas or unusual growths. After the vaginal exam, your doctor will need to insert a gloved finger into your rectum to check for tenderness, growths or any kind of irregularities.
Your doctor can tell you what he or she is doing during each step so that you don’t get surprised or uncomfortable.
After the exam
Right away after your exam, your doctor will be able to tell you if there were any abnormalities. Pap smear results can however, take a few days. Your doctor might prescribe you medications or require another visit.
Pelvic exams are important to determine a woman’s sexual and reproductive health. Sometimes they can also help in detecting a life-threatening condition such as cancer or infections.
However, you might find some discomfort during the procedure. Many women find pelvic exams uncomfortable physically as well as mentally. If you are nervous about your first pelvic exam, you can prepare a set of questions that you have for your doctor. It is also recommended that you offer feedback after your procedure is complete.