Annual Gynecological Exam
The annual gynecological exam, also known as a gynecological well-visit, is a yearly preventative and diagnostic examination that serves to maintain the wellness of female patients, as well as to monitor any ongoing physical or hormonal conditions. This annual visit is an opportunity for doctors to counsel patients about maintaining healthy lifestyles and minimizing health risks. The examination can include a routine breast and pelvic exam, and may include a screening for sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia or gonorrhea.
It is recommended that girls begin having annual pelvic exams when they are 21 years of age regardless of sexual activity, but certain medical conditions, such as vaginal infections or delayed menses, may lead to a gynecological consult at an earlier age.
Reasons for an Annual Gynecological Exam
There are several important reasons for women to undergo annual gynecological exams. During the examination, gynecological health is assessed through the following:
- Family history of gynecological disorders, especially cancers
- Physical examination of the breasts
- Internal examination of the vaginal and pelvic regions
- Pap smear to check for cervical cancer
- General check of height, weight and blood pressure
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) screening
- Check for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- Check for vaginal infections
In addition, the annual gynecological exam presents an appropriate occasion for the patient to confer with her doctor about menstrual irregularities, birth control methods, menopausal concerns, or possible sexual problems or dysfunctions. In many cases, on the basis of the patient's age or symptoms, the gynecologist may prescribe further testing, such as a mammogram, a bone-density screening, an endocrinological follow-up, or a dermatological check of a suspicious lesion.
Preparing for the Annual Gynecological Exam
Because this examination is of such an intimate nature, it is normal for women to feel some discomfort around it, especially early in their lives. It is important for girls and women to remember that these examinations are crucial to their health and should never be avoided because of embarrassment. They quickly become a routine part of the female health regimen.
Patients should schedule a gynecological exam between menstrual periods because menstrual flow can interfere with both the physical examination and the results of laboratory tests. For 24 hours prior to the appointment, patients should avoid sexual intercourse and refrain from inserting anything into the vagina, including douches or vaginal products, since these may invalidate test results. A patient should be prepared to give her doctor the date of her last menstrual period, and at what age she started menstruating, as well as to provide information about her sexual history, including any pregnancies or miscarriages. Any abnormal pain or vaginal discharge should also be reported.
The Annual Gynecological Exam Procedure
The procedure itself is uncomplicated. Sometimes, the patient provides a urine specimen before the exam. She undresses completely and puts on a gown. Her weight is measured and her blood pressure is taken. She tells the doctor of any pertinent information, including the date of her last period, and asks any questions she has about menstruation, sexual behavior, STDs or contraception.
The patient lies on her back on a table outfitted with stirrups, into which she puts her feet. The gynecologist first palpates each breast to feel for any possible lumps or other abnormalities. Then, the doctor, wearing exam gloves, inserts a hand into the patient's vagina to examine the entire pelvic region to make sure of anatomical and physiological well-being. A Pap smear is taken on an inserted swab, and transferred to a slide for microscopic analysis.
Considerations of the Annual Gynecological Exam
Although many still recommend routine annual checkups, some gynecologists and gynecological organizations have determined that not every patient, depending on her age and medical history, requires a checkup every year. Some gynecologists believe that exams are required only every other year, or even every 3 to 5 years, and that Pap smears need not be taken annually in all cases.