What Happens During a Gynecological Examination?

During the pelvic examination, the woman lies on her back with her hips and knees bent and her buttocks moved to the edge of the examining table. Special pelvic examination tables have heel stirrups that help a woman maintain this position. If a woman wants to observe the pelvic examination, she should tell the doctor, who can provide a mirror. The doctor may explain the examination or review the findings before, during, or after the examination. For the examination, the doctor first inspects the external genital area and notes the distribution of hair and any abnormalities, discoloration, discharge, or inflammation. This examination may detect no abnormalities or may give clues to hormonal problems, cancer, infections, injury, or sexual abuse.

The doctor spreads the tissues around the opening of the vagina (labia) and examines the opening. Using a speculum (a metal or plastic instrument that spreads the walls of the vagina apart), the doctor examines the deeper areas of the vagina and the cervix (the lower part of the uterus). The cervix is examined closely for signs of irritation or cancer. The doctor may use a swab, brush, or small plastic spatula to obtain a sample for testing, usually a Papanicolaou (Pap) test or a variation of it. The doctor checks for protrusion of the bladder, rectum, or intestine into the vagina (see see Pelvic Floor Disorders).

After removing the speculum, the doctor feels the vaginal wall to determine its strength and support. The doctor also feels for growths or tender areas within the vagina. After inserting the index and middle fingers of one gloved hand into the vagina, the doctor places the fingers of the other hand on the lower abdomen above the pubic bone. Between the two hands, the uterus can usually be felt as a pear-shaped, smooth, firm structure, and its position, size, consistency, and degree of tenderness (if any) can be determined. Then the doctor attempts to feel the ovaries by moving the hand on the abdomen more to the side and exerting slightly more pressure. More pressure is required because the ovaries are small and much more difficult to feel than the uterus. The woman may find this part of the examination to be slightly uncomfortable, but it should not be painful. The doctor determines how large the ovaries are and whether they are tender.

A rectovaginal examination may be done. The doctor inserts the index finger into the vagina and the middle finger into the rectum to examine the back wall of the vagina for abnormal growths or thickness. In addition, the doctor can examine the rectum for hemorrhoids, fissures, polyps, and lumps. A small sample of stool can be obtained with a gloved finger and tested for unseen (occult) blood. The woman may be given a take-home kit to test for occult blood in the stool.