Pelvic exam

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Ruchi Garg, MD, Chair, Gynecologic Oncology, City of Hope Atlanta, Chicago and Phoenix

This page was reviewed on November 17, 2021.

Doctors perform pelvic exams to examine a woman’s pelvis and surrounding organs. Typically, a pelvic exam is the first step in diagnosing gynecologic cancers, which include cancers of the vulva, vaginauterus, cervix, fallopian tubes and ovaries. Our gynecologic oncologists may perform a pelvic exam to determine the exact type and stage of cancer. In addition to cancer, pelvic exams can detect infections or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as gonorrhea, chlamydia and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Before a pelvic examination, it is recommended that you empty your bladder to avoid discomfort. You may be asked to disrobe completely or just below the belt. While you’re lying on an exam table, you’ll be asked to place your feet in stirrups and move to the end of the table. Your medical provider will perform a visual exam on the outside (vulvar area) then perform a speculum exam to visually examine vagina and cervix (if present). A Pap smear may also be performed.

A Pap smear is performed by quickly brushing the cervix with a plastic spatula, so that a sample of cells can be tested for abnormalities. Once the speculum is removed, your doctor will perform a bimanual exam by placing two gloved fingers inside the vagina and using the other hand to press down on different parts of your stomach and pelvic organs. This allows the doctor to note changes in size or shape of your reproductive organs, which may indicate a problem. In some cases, a rectal exam may also be performed in order to detect possible tumors or other abnormalities.

A pelvic exam usually takes about  five to10 minutes to perform. It may feel uncomfortable, but should not be painful. A Pap test and cervical cancer screening are part of most gynecology wellness checks. If you have had a reproductive health checkup before, this physical exam should be similar.

If cancer is found or suspected during a pelvic exam, our Gynecologic Oncology Program provides multiple treatment modalities such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. We understand every woman is different, so your treatment plan will incorporate innovative procedures and therapies based on your unique needs and treatment goals.

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