Pelvic exams are an important part of a woman’s regular checkup or periodic gynecologist visit. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that a woman make her first appointment with a gynecologist when she is between the ages of 13 and 15. While not all women will need a pelvic exam on their first visit, the ACOG recommends that all women have regular pelvic exams beginning at age 21.
A Key Part of Preventative Health Care
By Laura Childers
What is a Pelvic Exam?
A pelvic examination is a complete physical examination of a woman’s pelvic organs including the vulva and internal reproductive organs (cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, and vagina). According to the National Cancer Institute, the best time for a woman to schedule a pelvic exam and to obtain accurate results is one or two weeks after her period. She should also refrain from having sex for at least 24 hours prior to an examination.
What is it For?
Pelvic exams help doctors identify early stages of cancer, infections (such as yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis), and sexually transmitted diseases. They can also help determine a cause of abnormal bleeding, or look for abnormalities such as uterine fibroids or ovarian cysts. Pelvic exams are commonly performed before prescribing a method of birth control, when a woman is pregnant, or when a woman is having pain in her pelvic area or lower back.
What is it Like?
During the pelvic exam, the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum are felt to find any abnormality in shape or size. An instrument called a speculum is used to widen the vagina so that the upper portion of the vagina and the cervix can be seen. A female nurse or assistant may stay in the room during a pelvic exam. A woman may also request the presence of her partner or a friend. If a woman has had problems with pelvic exams in the past or has experienced sexual abuse, she should talk to her health professional about her fears before her pelvic exam. The pelvic exam may be a little uncomfortable, but is usually painless if a woman can relax. A woman should tell her doctor if she experiences any pain.
The ACOG recommends pap smear testing begin at age 21, and women between the ages of 21 and 29 be tested every two years. For women 30 years and older who have had three consecutive normal screening test results, the ACOG suggests testing be done every three years. ACOG guidelines say women can consider stopping pap tests between ages 65 and 70 if they’ve had three consecutive negative tests and no abnormal tests in the last 10 years.