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What is a Pelvic Exam?

By Dulce Corazon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A pelvic examination or pelvic exam is a short procedure often performed in the clinics of obstetricians and gynecologists to examine the external and internal parts of the female reproductive tract. It usually includes checking the external area around the vagina, such as the vulva, clitoris, and the rectum, and then evaluating the ovaries, uterus, and cervix manually. This is often done as a component of a woman's regular health checkup.

Health experts recommend women undergo a pelvic exam by the time they become active sexually or when they reach the age of 21 in order to asses their reproductive health and for the detection of many medical conditions. It is an important process which can discover the presence of any mass or growth in the female reproductive tract, such as uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, and cancers. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as gonorrhea and herpes, and other infections caused by bacteria and fungi, are also often discovered through the pelvic exams.

The pelvic exam also determines presence of abnormalities in the female pelvic organs, such as uterine prolapse, and may identify sources of bleeding and pain in the area. Pregnant women also undergo a pelvic exam as part of their prenatal checkup. The procedure is also used for collecting evidence of sexual assault for legal purposes.

There are usually no special preparations needed prior to having a pelvic exam done. Women are usually requested to lie down on the examining bed after taking off their clothing and are often provided with a sheet of cloth for privacy. With bent knees and each foot in a stirrup, the physician first examines the physical aspects of the vagina, often asking pertinent questions. Then a speculum is inserted to view the cervix, and when needed, a sample for a Pap test is taken to be sent to the laboratory. The internal organs are then evaluated as the physician inserts gloved fingers inside the vagina to feel for the ovaries and uterus with the other hand pressing gently on the abdomen.

A physicians will also insert a gloved finger in the rectum after examining the internal reproductive organs, in order to assess for presence of any irregularities in the area. As the time for complete examination is very short, usually taking less than ten minutes, the discomfort is often negligible. After the procedure, the physician usually discusses her findings with the patient and recommends management or treatment for any problems she has discovered.

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Discussion Comments
By ElizaBennett — On Sep 16, 2011

@SailorJerry - That's so exciting about your new baby! I hope everything goes smoothly.

The short answer to your question is there is no point! It can get you all worked up. Either you get depressed because you're not dilated much (and you could still go into labor that night), or you're at three centimeters so you think you're going into labor right away... and then it goes another week.

During my last pregnancy, I actually chose not to have routine exams for just that reason. The nurse would try to give me the sheet and I would calmly decline.

Even during labor, you want to minimize vaginal exams, especially after the water has broken, because it increases the risk of infection. (By the way, I think it's just a vaginal exam that they do - I think a pelvic exam, from reading the article, is the full-on thing they do at your annual checkup. The exam in late pregnancy and in labor does not involve palpating the abdomen/ovaries, for instance.)

By SailorJerry — On Sep 15, 2011

My wife is pregnant with our first child and she was 36 weeks yesterday. (Almost there! Woot!) At her doctor's appointment, she had a pelvic exam and I got the impression that they plan to do these every time we go in from now on.

They said she's a half centimeter dilated and 70% effaced, so that's good, I guess. But they also said that that doesn't really mean anything about when she'll go into labor! If it doesn't really tell you anything, what's the point of having the vaginal/ pelvic exam in the first place? I'm a dude, obviously, but even I know that can't be comfortable.

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