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A pelvic examination is a thorough check of a woman's pelvic organs. The exam helps a doctor or nurse see the size and position of the vagina, cervix, uterus, and ovaries.
Experts differ on how often a pelvic exam is needed. Talk to your doctor about when to have this test.
A pelvic exam may be done:
Try to schedule the exam when you are not having your period. The blood can affect Pap test results. But the exam can be done during your period if you have a new vaginal discharge or new or increasing pain in that area.
Before the exam:
At the start of your visit, tell your doctor or nurse:
If you have had problems with pelvic exams or using tampons before or have experienced rape or sexual abuse, talk to your doctor or nurse about your concerns or fears before the exam.
No other special preparations are needed. For your own comfort, you may want to empty your bladder first.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns you have. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?).
During a pelvic exam, you will:
You can ask for a mirror if you want to watch while the test is being done.
A female nurse or assistant may stay in the room with you during the exam. You may also request the presence of your partner or a friend.
A pelvic exam can involve three steps: the external exam, bimanual (two-handed) exam, and rectovaginal exam.
During the external exam, the doctor or nurse will:
If you are due for a Pap test, the doctor or nurse will use a small brush or a wooden spatula to gently collect a sample of cells from your cervix. You may have some staining or bleeding after the sample is taken. A sample of the cervical mucus may also be collected with a cotton swab. The mucus may be tested for sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.
Your doctor or nurse will insert one or two gloved fingers of one hand into your vagina while placing the other hand on your lower belly. By pressing down on your belly and moving the fingers around inside your vagina, the doctor or nurse can find and feel the size, shape, and texture of the uterus and ovaries. Any unusual growths, tenderness, or pain can also be identified.
Your doctor or nurse will insert one finger into your rectum and one into your vagina. This helps the doctor or nurse evaluate your ovaries and uterus ligaments. This exam is not always done as part of a pelvic exam.
After the exam is finished, you will be given a washcloth or tissue to wipe your vaginal area to remove any discharge from the exam. Then you will get dressed. Some test results may be available right away. But getting results from the Pap test may take several days to a couple of weeks.
A pelvic exam is more comfortable if you are relaxed. Breathing deeply and having a light conversation with the doctor or nurse may help you relax. Try not to hold your breath or tense your muscles.
You may feel some pressure or mild discomfort when the speculum is inserted into your vagina. Try to relax your legs and hips as much as you can. You may feel pain or irritation, especially if you have a vaginal infection. If a metal speculum is used, the metal may feel cold and hard. The speculum may be warmed with water or lubricated with a vaginal lubricant, such as K-Y Jelly, before being inserted.
During the bimanual part of the exam, you may feel an uncomfortable sensation of pressure or a slight twinge of pain as the doctor or nurse feels your ovaries. Breathing deeply may help you relax. You may feel a brief pinch when the Pap test is taken. Tell your doctor or nurse if any part of the exam is painful.
During the rectovaginal exam, you may feel as though you are about to have a bowel movement as the doctor or nurse withdraws a finger from your rectum. This is a normal sensation that lasts only a few seconds. You may have a small amount of vaginal discharge or bleeding after the exam.
There are no risks linked with a pelvic exam.
A pelvic exam is a thorough check of a woman's pelvic organs. The exam helps a doctor or nurse see the size and position of the vagina, cervix, uterus, and ovaries.
The uterus and ovaries are normal in size and location. The uterus can be moved slightly without causing pain.
The vulva, vagina, and cervix look normal with no signs of infection, inflammation, or other abnormalities.
Glands around the opening of your vagina (Bartholin's glands) or urethra (Skene's glands) are not swollen or inflamed.
No masses (nodules) of abnormal tissue are felt in the area between the uterus and rectum or in the ligaments that attach to the uterus to hold it in place. No fibroids are felt.
There is no pelvic pain or tenderness.
No hardening of tissue is felt.
Sores, signs of infection, inflammation, or abnormalities of the vulva, vagina, or cervix are seen. Signs of a sexually transmitted infection (such as genital herpes, genital warts, or syphilis) may be seen. More tests will be needed to find the cause.
The glands around the vagina (Bartholin's glands) or urethra (Skene's glands) are swollen or inflamed.
The uterus cannot be moved (even slightly) during the exam.
Pain or tenderness is felt when the uterus is moved slightly or when the area between the uterus and rectum is touched. The uterus is pushed away from the midline of the belly.
The ovaries are enlarged, not movable (fixed), or painful when touched.
An ovarian mass is found. Or a mass that was found during a previous exam is still there or has grown larger.
Small masses (nodules) of abnormal tissue are felt. Uterine fibroids are felt.
Hardening of tissue is felt.
An area of ulceration or a tear is found.
A mass can be felt near one or both ovaries.
Many conditions can change the results of your pelvic exam. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about any significant abnormal results.
You may not be able to have the test, or the results may not be helpful, if:
A pelvic exam is usually not needed to get a prescription for hormonal birth control.
A pelvic exam is not always done to check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It depends on your symptoms.
Tests used to check for STIs include:
Pelvic ultrasound is another test used to check a woman's pelvic organs. To learn more, see the topic Pelvic Ultrasound.
Vaginal self-exam may help you better understand your body, know what is normal for you, and find early signs of infections or other abnormal conditions that might require medical attention. A self-exam should not replace a pelvic exam and Pap test done by a doctor or nurse. To learn more, see the topic Vaginal Self-Examination (VSE).
Other Works ConsultedChernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby’s Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerSarah Marshall, MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerFemi Olatunbosun, MB, FRCSC - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Current as ofFebruary 25, 2016
Current as of: February 25, 2016
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Femi Olatunbosun, MB, FRCSC - Obstetrics and Gynecology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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