Sarah Cannon - January 03, 2022

Whether you have scheduled your first pelvic exam or have had many over the years, you may have questions about what exactly is involved and why they are an important part of your health care. Read further to learn more about pelvic exams, including what to expect and how often it is recommended that you have one. 

What happens during a pelvic exam procedure? 

A pelvic exam is a physical examination of your vagina, bladder, cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, and rectum. It usually takes about 10 minutes and should not hurt, but you may feel some discomfort or cramping. Tell your healthcare provider if you experience discomfort or pain during the exam or if you feel nervous. Your doctors are there to support you, ease your concerns, and help you be as healthy as possible. 

Before the exam, you will be asked to remove your clothing and change into a dressing gown or covering in private. Then, you will be asked to lie on your back on an exam table, move to the end of the table, and place your feet in stirrups, which support your legs. If moving into this position is difficult or not possible for you, be sure to make your healthcare provider aware so they can accommodate you. 

During the exam, your doctor or nurse will: 

  • Check your vulva, vagina, and rectum for lumps, abnormal areas and other signs of disease.
  • Insert a speculum (a metal device used to spread the vaginal wall) so your provider can see the vagina and cervix.
  • Place one or two fingers inside the vagina and use their other hand to press on your lower abdomen to check the shape and size of your organs.
  • Take a sample of cells from the cervix using a small brush and plastic spatula. This is called a Pap smear or Pap test and it is used to check for human papillomavirus (HPV) and precancerous cells on the cervix. You will not need a Pap test during every pelvic exam.
  • Perform a rectal exam (in some cases) by inserting a finger into the rectum to check for tumors or abnormalities. You may not need a rectal exam during your pelvic exam. 

If you are sexually active, discuss with your provider whether they recommend testing for sexually transmitted infections (STI) such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, as this can also be performed during a pelvic exam. 

What to expect after a pelvic exam 

It is normal to have very light bleeding after a pelvic exam, but you should not experience heavy bleeding. If you do, call your health care provider’s office. 

Results from your Pap test or STI test will typically be available within a few days. 

How to make a pelvic exam more comfortable 

It is completely normal to feel nervous before a pelvic exam. Doing the following can help you relax: 

  • Ask your doctor or nurse to explain the procedure.
  • Take deep breaths.
  • Relax your leg, stomach, and shoulder muscles. 

If you have experienced sexual trauma, talk with your provider so they can support you and make your exam as comfortable as possible. 

Who needs a pelvic exam? 

If you have female organs, you should start getting routine pelvic exams at age 21. Ask your healthcare provider how often they recommend you get a pelvic exam based on your age and health risks. 

Your doctor or nurse may also recommend a pelvic exam if you: 

  • Are pregnant.
  • Have pelvic pain or pain during sex.
  • Experience unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge.
  • Are concerned you may have a STI.
  • Have a family history of cervical or ovarian cancer. 

Why do you need a pelvic exam? 

Regular pelvic exams can help prevent certain cancers or detect them in earlier, more treatable stages. The exams can also check for abnormalities, infections and other health concerns. Ask your doctor what screening schedule is right for you. 

Learn more about gynecologic cancer at Sarah Cannon.

It is important to know that the information in this post, including Sarah Cannon’s recommendations for screening, is accurate as of the publishing date.