What to expect from a trip to the gynecologist

A trip to the gynecologist really isn’t so bad. Here’s what to expect.

Visit to the gynecologistIf you’re a female college student, it’s probably time to see a gynecologist. If you already have, that’s great. If not, consider making an appointment. Most health professionals recommend that women see a gynecologist for an exam when they turn 18 or when they become sexually active — whichever comes first.

A lot of women put off their first visit because they’ve heard horror stories or don’t know what to expect. If you haven’t been to the gynecologist yet, you should go soon so you can get your reproductive organs examined and make sure you don’t have any gynecological problems. If there are any problems, regular gynecological exams will help you detect and take care of them early. Also, if you want to use birth control pills or certain other types of contraception, a gynecological exam is required.

When you make an appointment, let them know if it’s your first exam. If you have any questions, ask. They should tell you not to use vaginal creams or douches or have sex during the 24 hours prior to your exam. And don’t schedule an exam during your period. According to Planned Parenthood, menstrual fluid can affect the results of some lab tests.

Don’t worry — despite what you may have heard, a gynecological exam is not a big deal. It only takes a few minutes and nothing traumatic happens. You do have to take off your clothes, including your bra and underwear. If you feel uncomfortable being alone in the exam room, it’s perfectly fine for a friend, your mom, or a nurse to stay in there with you. Of course, if you want to be alone, that’s fine too.

Phaedra Thomas, R.N., B.S.N., Resource Center Nurse Coordinator for the Center for Young Women’s Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston, MA, explains that there are three parts to a gynecological exam: the external exam, the speculum exam, and the bimanual exam. (In addition to the gynecological, or pelvic, exam, you will likely get a breast exam.) But before you get to the exam, you have to get on a table, put your feet in stirrups, bend your knees, and spread your legs.

According to Thomas, “This is usually the part when most adolescent and adult women feel embarrassed. This feeling is normal.” Thomas adds, “Just remember that although this is your first exam, this is routine for health care providers and their only concern is for your health.”

During an exam, you’re also going to be asked a lot of personal questions about your sexual activity, your period, and vaginal discharge. Answer honestly. They’ve heard it all — and much worse — before.

Thomas explains that a typical exam goes something like this:

External exam. This is where the physician checks out the outside of your vagina. Yes, someone is touching and staring intently at your private parts, but it’s painless.

Speculum exam. This is where it starts to get tricky, but if you relax this won’t hurt either. You may experience a strange feeling of pressure or discomfort, but nothing excruciating. Your doctor will place the speculum — a medical instrument made of metal or plastic — into your vagina. Once inserted, the speculum is opened gently so your health care provider can see your vagina and cervix (the opening to your uterus).

After checking your vagina and cervix, the doctor or nurse will take a thin wooden stick and a special tiny brush and wipe a few cells from your cervix. This is a Pap test, which detects changes in the cervix that might become cancerous. Most likely, your Pap test will be normal. If you’re experiencing vaginal discharge, the doctor or nurse may take another sample to check for yeast and other causes of discharge. And if you are having sex, your health care provider will take another sample from the cervix to check for sexually transmitted infections. Once all the samples are taken, the doctor closes the speculum and removes it from your vagina. And that’s it — you’re finished with the speculum.

Bimanual exam. You’re almost done. This last part of the exam is done to check your tubes, ovaries, and uterus for tenderness, pain, swelling, cysts, tumors, and several other possible conditions. A doctor can learn a lot in there, so sit back and let it happen.

Your doctor will insert one or two gloved fingers into your vagina. With the other hand, she will gently apply pressure to the lower part of your abdomen. You may feel slight discomfort or pressure when he or she presses in certain places, but it shouldn’t hurt. If you do feel pain, make sure you tell your doctor. This only takes a few seconds. In some cases your doctor might perform a rectal exam, too. This involves inserting one finger into your anus, and is usually done following the bimanual exam. For a bimanual or rectal exam, just relax and take slow deep breaths. It should not be painful.

If you have any questions before, during, or after your exam, make sure you ask them. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed — that’s what your doctor is there for. Once your first exam is done, you’ll realize it’s not so bad. After that, you should see your gynecologist about once a year (more if you have problems or concerns) and next time, you’ll know just what to expect.

Learn More

Here’s a glossary of terms from Planned Parenthood that might be helpful when you go into your exam.

Anus: The opening through which the bowels empty feces from the digestive tract.

Biopsy: The removal of small bits of body tissue to be examined under a microscope for diagnosis.

Bladder: The organ that contains and collects urine from the kidney.

Clinician: A qualified health care professional, such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, or lab technician.

Cervix: The outer, lower part of the uterus, with an opening connecting the uterus to the vagina.

Colposcope: A viewing instrument with a bright light and magnifying lens that can be painlessly inserted into the vagina. Used to examine the cervix.

Cryotherapy: A surgical treatment in which a growth is frozen so it will become detached.

Electrocautory: A surgical treatment in which electric current is used to remove growths.

Fallopian tube: One of two narrow tubes that carry the egg from the ovary to the uterus.

Laser surgery: A treatment that uses a concentrated beam of light to cut away abnormal tissue.

Menopause: The time when menstruation stops, marked by the last menstrual period.

Ovaries: The two organs that store eggs in a woman’s body and produce hormones associated with sex and reproduction.

Pap test: A procedure used to study the cells of the cervix; detects infection, hormonal conditions, and pre-cancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix.

Rectum: The lowest end of the bowel before the anus, where feces are stored.

Speculum: A plastic or metal instrument used to separate the walls of the vagina so the clinician can examine the vagina and cervix.

Urethra: The tube from the bladder to the opening from which women and men urinate.

Uterus: The pear-shaped reproductive organ from which women menstruate, and where normal pregnancy develops (womb).

Vagina: The passage that connects a woman’s outer sex organs with the cervix and uterus.

Vulva: A woman’s sex organs, including the clitoris, the labia, and opening to the vagina.