There are many types of physical exams to assess the health of the human body, particularly the female body. One exam that you will likely have in order to check out your reproductive health (if you’re a woman) is called a pelvic exam.
A pelvic exam is a relatively simple and painless procedure that may occur during your annual well woman visit with your primary care physician or gynecologist. If you’ve never had one before, here’s why pelvic exams are important (and what you can expect to happen).
Why Do I Need a Pelvic Exam?
There are many reasons why you might need a pelvic exam. Here are some of the most common:
1. You may need a pelvic exam to assess your gynecological health. A pelvic exam is often part of a routine physical exam to find possible signs of ovarian cysts, sexually transmitted infections, uterine fibroids or early-stage cancer. Pregnancy is also another cause for pelvic exams.
2. You may need a pelvic exam to diagnose a medical condition. If you’re experiencing gynecological symptoms such as pelvic pain, unusual vaginal bleeding, skin changes, abnormal vaginal discharge or urinary problems, your doctor may suggest performing a pelvic exam. An exam can help your doctor diagnose the causes of these symptoms. Your doctor might even suggest additional diagnostic testing or treatment.
There’s a lot of debate among experts regarding the recommended frequency of pelvic exams. Ask your doctor what they recommend is best for you.
What to Expect During a Pelvic Exam
A pelvic exam is done in your doctor’s office by a medical professional and takes only a few minutes. Before the exam, you may be asked to change into a gown, or you may be asked to remove only your pants/undergarments and given a sheet to be placed over your bottom half for privacy.
During the exam, you will lie on your back on an exam table with your knees bent and feet placed on the corners of the table or in supports (stirrups). You’ll be asked to slide your body toward the end of the table and open your knees. You may need to relax your buttocks during this part as well. Once you’re situated, the doctor will generally do the following:
- External visual exam. During this part, the doctor looks at your vulva, checking for irritation, redness, sores, swelling or other abnormalities.
- Internal visual exam. Then, your doctor will likely use a speculum — a plastic or metal-hinged instrument — to spread open your vaginal walls and see your vagina and cervix. Some women find this to be uncomfortable, and it helps to relax as best you can during this part. However, if you’re in a lot of pain, let your doctor know right away.
- Pap test. If your pelvic exam includes a Pap test (Pap smear), your doctor will swipe a small wand to collect a sample of your cervical cells for testing.
- Physical exam. During this part of the exam, your doctor will check the size and shape of your uterus and ovaries, noting any tender areas or unusual growths. Because your pelvic organs can’t be seen from outside your body, your doctor needs to palpate (feel) your abdomen and pelvis. To do this, your doctor will insert two lubricated, gloved fingers into your vagina with one hand, while the other hand presses gently on the outside of your lower abdomen.
Throughout the whole examination, your doctor should tell you exactly what they are doing at each step so that nothing comes as a surprise.
While it sounds like a lot of different steps, it will happen very quickly and before you know it, you’ll be asked to remove your feet from the stirrups and sit up. The doctor may then give you wipes (to clean any additional lube from yourself) and leave the room to give you privacy to clean up and get dressed. If they’ve noticed anything unusual, they may come back into the room to discuss next steps.
Where Can I Get a Pelvic Exam?
You can receive a pelvic exam at a doctor’s office, such as a gynecologist’s office like Copperstate, or at another health clinic.
Remember, if you’re experiencing gynecological symptoms such as pelvic pain, unusual vaginal bleeding, skin changes, abnormal vaginal discharge or urinary problems, you may need to make an appointment for a pelvic exam.