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What is a pelvic exam?

Dr. Kevin W. Windom, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

A pelvic exam, otherwise known as a gynecologic exam, is a procedure where a woman's vagina, cervix, uterus and ovaries are examined for health and wellness. During a pelvic exam, a small metal or plastic instrument called a speculum is placed into the vagina so as to expose the cervix, and then a "Pap smear" is performed in which a spatula is used to brush cells away from the outer portion of the cervix to send to a laboratory for evaluation to check for any types of precancerous changes of the cervix. After the speculum exam, I will place 1-2 fingers inside the patient's vagina to examine the vaginal wall as well as examine the cervix and then place my other hand on the patient's abdomen and examine the size of the patient's uterus as well as her ovaries, and this also checks to make sure there is no significant pelvic pain or pressure or any types of abnormality.

It is not necessary to do anything specific prior to a pelvic exam. I just tell patients that it is important to empty their bowel and bladder before the exam because it will make is somewhat more comfortable. Also, patients need to relax if possible, and this will make the exam less painful. Lastly, the patient needs to be comfortable with the doctor who is performing the pelvic exam. If she is not comfortable with the doctor performing the pelvic exam, she should consider rescheduling her procedure possibly with a different medical provider.

There are several reasons why a doctor might recommend having a pelvic examination, which includes both an external and internal physical examination of a woman's genitals and pelvic organs.

  • Some doctors consider pelvic examination to be a routine part of good preventive health care for a woman. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that a girl have her first visit with a gynecologist between the ages of 13 and 15 years old. This visit may or may not include a pelvic examination depending on a girl's particular symptoms and circumstances. In addition to making sure a teenage girl is healthy, a doctor or nurse practitioner can discuss menstruation, pregnancy prevention, avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases and other important topics during this discussion. Once a woman is 21 years old, pelvic exams are recommended annually as part of a "well woman" check. However, some other medical groups have questioned the value of routine, annual exams.
  • A pelvic examination may be recommended if you are experiencing certain symptoms such as unusual vaginal discharge, irregular or particularly painful menstrual periods, bleeding between periods or other problems.
  • A pelvic exam is needed in order to be fitted with certain forms of birth control, specifically the diaphragm, intrauterine device or cervical cap.
  • In pregnant women, a pelvic exam is usually done shortly after a positive pregnancy test to check the size and position of the uterus. Pelvic exams may also be performed later in the pregnancy to check for signs that labor is near.

Although recent guidelines have changed, most gynecologists believe it's important to get a pelvic exam every year. Watch as OBGYN specialist Lauren Streicher, MD, explains what happens during a pelvic exam and why women should get one annually.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.