What to Expect at a Pelvic Exam
As part of your wellness visit at a family planning center, you may have a pelvic exam. But what exactly is a pelvic exam? Will it be embarrassing? Will it hurt?
These questions and feelings are normal, but you don’t need to worry. We’ll break down what goes on during a pelvic exam so you can feel confident and prepared.
What is a Pelvic Exam?
Pelvic exams help to find the cause of various symptoms and can detect signs of possible health conditions. During a pelvic exam, some women will receive a pap smear. A Pap smear also called a Pap test, is usually performed to check for cervical cancer cells. However, a pelvic exam is also a routine part of preparing for or preventing pregnancy.
Why Do I Need a Pelvic Exam?
If you are sexually active, a regular exam is important to keep you healthy. You and your healthcare provider should discuss how often you should have an exam. However, a pelvic exam can be scheduled any time. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, you may need a pelvic exam to find what is wrong and get treated. Some abnormal symptoms include:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Unusual or unpleasant smell from vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Skin changes
- Urinary problems
A pelvic exam helps your healthcare provider find the cause or causes of these symptoms, decide if additional testing is needed and determine the best treatment.
What Can I Learn from a Pelvic Exam?
A pelvic exam often is used to find possible signs of many conditions, such as:
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Yeast infection
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Ovarian cysts
- Uterine fibroids
How to Prepare for a Pelvic Exam
You don’t need to prepare for a pelvic exam; however, you may want to schedule your exam on a day when you don’t have your period or when you do not have heavy flow from your period. Using the restroom before your exam may also make the exam more comfortable for you. If you have questions, you may want to write them down and take them with you to the appointment.
What to Expect During and After a Pelvic Exam
During the pelvic exam
- When you’re called in to start your visit, your vital signs will be taken (blood pressure, weight, etc.). You may also be asked the start date of your last period.
- You will be given a gown and privacy to undress completely or partially from the waist down. When the healthcare provider enters the room, he or she may ask you some questions. This is a good time to bring up any issues or questions you may have.
- You’ll then lay on your back on the exam table with your knees bent and your feet placed in stirrups (metal foot supports).
- You’ll scoot your body toward the end of the table to where the healthcare provider can see and examine your pelvic area.
Your healthcare provider will then perform the following steps of your exam:
- The external visual exam inspects your vulva to look for any abnormalities, such as swelling, redness, irritation, skin growths or sores.
- The internal visual exam examines your internal organs and structure. Your healthcare provider inserts a lubricated speculum (a plastic or metal instrument shaped like a duck’s bill) into your vagina, the lubricant helps to ease the insertion. Your provider will open and lock the speculum in place so to view your vagina and cervix. Inserting and opening the speculum causes pressure that may feel odd, but should not be painful. Because of the discomfort, some women have trouble relaxing, which can increase discomfort or cause pain. Try to relax as much as possible, but if you do have pain, tell your doctor.
- A Pap test, also called a Pap smear, is usually performed but may not be necessary if you are having a pelvic exam for other reasons. Prior to a Pap smear, you should abstain from sex for 24 hours before your scheduled appointment. During a Pap smear, a small brush will be swiped across your cervix to collect a sample of your cervical cells. During the physical exam, your provider will feel your abdomen and pelvis. He or she will insert two lubricated, gloved fingers into your vagina, while the other hand presses gently on the outside of your lower abdomen. This step is used to check the size and shape of your ovaries and uterus, noting any tender spots or unusual growths.
Your provider should tell you exactly what he or she is doing before and during each step so nothing is a surprise. If your provider is not giving you enough information or you feel uncomfortable, you should let your provider know.
After the pelvic exam
Your healthcare provider will leave the room while you get dressed. Your provider will then return, discuss any results and give you an opportunity to ask any other questions you may have about your sexual or reproductive health.
Will I Get My Results Immediately?
Your healthcare provider may be able to tell you immediately if any unusual exam results were found, though it may be too early for a diagnosis at that point for any unusual findings. Pap tests are often sent to a lab, and results may take a few days to a couple weeks. Not all healthcare providers call if the result is normal. Be sure to ask if you want a phone call either way.
What are My Next Steps After a Pelvic Exam?
Based on the results of your exam, your healthcare provider will discuss any next steps, additional tests, medications, home care or treatment plan.
Maintaining your reproductive and sexual health is just as important as taking care of the rest of your body. Whether you are having concerning symptoms or it’s time for your first routine pelvic exam, visit the find a health center page today, to find your nearest NJFPL supported health center and schedule your appointment.