When I remember my first pelvic exam, all I remember thinking about was how the doctor was going to inspect all of me—you know, all of me. The variety of metal tools and swabs on the table definitely did not help my anxiety either. It's easy to get nervous going to the doctor in any situation, but I get becoming extra nervous when the whole appointment is about your vagina. Now that I know and understand what to expect at my yearly wellness exam, I can confidently say there's nothing to worry about! Read on for tips and what to expect for your next pelvic exam.
What's a Pelvic Exam?
If you're a human with a vagina, a pelvic exam is just a regular part of your wellness exam. You'll likely start getting pelvic examinations once you turn 21, though you may go for your first pelvic exam earlier if you're having certain symptoms or you're looking to get a prescription for birth control.
It's totally normal to feel nervous before your first pelvic examination, but don't worry! These exams only take a few minutes, and they don't hurt (although, yeah, some parts can feel uncomfortable briefly). If something does hurt, tell your doctor or nurse right away so they can help make you more comfortable.
Here are a few tips and tricks to help you feel more relaxed during your exam:
- Take slow, deep breaths.
- Allow your stomach muscles to go soft.
- Relax your muscles, including your shoulders and the muscles between your legs.
- Ask the doctor or nurse performing the examination to describe what they're doing while they do it — as with so many things in life, communication is key.
What Does a Pelvic Exam Consist Of?
During your pelvic exam, a doctor will perform a visual and physical examination of your reproductive organs. Your doctor will inspect your:
- Fallopian tubes
You may also get a Pap test, used to screen for cervical cancer, during your exam.
Reasons for Having a Pelvic Exam
The CDC recommends that most humans with vaginas receive regular pelvic exams starting at the age of 21. These regular wellness checks are a lot like your general checkups with the doctor. However, there are a few special reasons why you might need a pelvic exam beyond that regular schedule, including:
- You're having unusual discharge or vaginal bleeding.
- You have a family history of cancer.
- You're concerned about STIs, cysts, ovarian cancer or other reproductive health issues.
- You want to get a prescription for birth control.
What Happens During a Pelvic Exam?
Going in prepared knowing how a pelvic exam is done will help you relax during your first examination. Your doctor or nurse will first give you some time to undress and put on a cloth or paper gown in privacy. Once they return to your room, they'll ask you to lie down on an exam table. You'll need to put your legs up on footrests.
As you slide your hips to the edge of the table, let your knees spread out. Again, try to relax the muscles in your stomach, vaginal area and butt as much as you can. What I like to do before exams is take a few nice, deep breaths before the doctor comes in to calm the nervousness. Being less tense will make the whole experience more comfortable.
A typical pelvic exam includes the following parts:
- External exam: The doctor or nurse will take a look at your vulva, as well as the opening of your vagina.
- Speculum exam: Your doctor or nurse will slide a speculum, a medical instrument made of plastic or metal, gently into your vagina. The speculum separates the walls of your vagina. It's going to feel cold at first! But, if it hurts, let your doctor know. Pro-tip: If you're curious to see your cervix, you can ask. Your doctor or nurse may be able to show you with a mirror.
- Bimanual exam: Your doctor or nurse will put one or two fingers (gloved and lubricated first) into your vagina while they gently press down on your lower abdomen with the other hand.
- Rectovaginal exam: Your doctor or nurse might also put a gloved finger in your rectum, possibly putting another finger in your vagina at the same time to inspect the tissue between the rectum and vagina more thoroughly. Pro-tip #2: Don't freak out if you feel like you have to poop at this part of the examination. The feeling is completely normal, and will only last for a few seconds.
What Does a Pelvic Exam Show?
Each component of a pelvic exam checks aspects of your reproductive health.
The external exam checks for signs of:
- Abnormal discharge
- Genital warts
The speculum exam includes a few different parts. Once the doctor or nurse inserts the speculum, they'll use a small brush or spatula in your cervix to get a small sample of cells. This sample goes to a lab to screen for pre-cancer or cancer in your cervix. This pelvic exam test is what's known as a Pap test. If you're getting tested for STIs such as gonorrhea or chlamydia or other infections, the doctor or nurse will also take a sample of discharge from your cervix using a cotton swab.
The bimanual exam checks for:
- Enlarged ovaries
- Enlarged Fallopian tubes
- Ovarian cysts
- Tenderness or pain (which could indicate an infection or other condition)
The rectovaginal exam checks the muscles between your vagina and anus, and checks for tumors in the following places:
- Behind your uterus
- In your rectum
- On your vagina's lower wall
In combination with information about your medical history and any symptoms you're experiencing, your doctor or nurse may diagnose pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This infection of the female reproductive organs is pretty common, and it happens when sexually transmitted bacteria spread from the vagina to the fallopian tubes, ovaries or uterus. Tenderness and swelling can signify PID.
It's so important to bring up any symptoms during your exam, as a proper diagnosis will help you get treatment that gets you feeling better and back to leading your normal life. Treatment for PID can include antibiotics (make sure you take everything prescribed, even if you start feeling better a few days in) for you and your partner or partners.
Knowing what a pelvic examination is will help you feel more at ease when it comes time to do it. Remember: slow, deep breaths, and speak up if something doesn't feel right. Your pelvic exam is essential to keeping track of your overall sexual and reproductive health and may detect life-threatening conditions like infections or cancer before they develop into a bigger problem, so make sure you get one when it's time.