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Well Woman Exam

Reasons to Get One, What to Expect, Associated Risks & More

Key Points

  • The article highlights the significance of regular well woman exams for women aged 18 and above, emphasizing their role in early detection of possible health problems, especially those related to reproductive health.
  • The well woman exam typically consists of a breast examination and a pelvic examination, with the former possibly including a mammogram for women at high risk of breast cancer.
  • During the pelvic exam, an external exam, a speculum exam, and a bimanual exam are usually performed.
  • The doctor may ask questions about menstrual cycles, sexual activity, birth control, and family medical history during the well woman exam.
  • Despite potential discomfort or busy schedules, the article urges women to prioritize these exams as they are vital for maintaining health and identifying potential issues early.

What to Expect at a Well Woman Exam

First, to ensure that you’re as comfortable as possible, you’ll be able to specify if you have a preference toward the examiner’s gender. The examiner will then perform two examinations – one of the breast and one of the pelvis.

What to Expect for a Breast Exam

  • Visual inspection – Your healthcare professional will look at both breasts to check the color, symmetry, and dimensions (according to age) and look for any abnormalities, such as bulges or shrinkage in the breasts or inversion of the nipple.
  • Palpation – For this portion of the exam, you’ll be asked to lie flat on your back with one arm lifted so the hand is behind your head. Your medical examiner will then use three fingers to compress the breast tissue, nipple, and underarms for any nodes (lumps).
  • Mammogram – In some instances, you may also get a special X-ray of the breasts, which is called a mammogram. These are recommended for women who have symptoms of breast cancer or are at an increased risk of the disease, since they show tumors long before they are large enough to produce a lump you can feel. For the test, you will be asked to stand while your breasts are pressed between two plastic plates. For women whose breast tissue is very dense, an ultrasound may be recommended to screen for tumors.

What to Expect for a Pelvic Exam

For your pelvic exam, you’ll be asked to undress and lie down on an exam table with your legs up on footrests. Don’t worry – although it may sound intimidating, your examiner will talk you through it to make sure you’re relaxed. There are usually three parts to a pelvic exam, including:

  • The external exam – Your healthcare professional will look at your vulva and the opening of your vagina, checking for any cysts, genital warts, abnormal discharge, or other issues.
  • The speculum exam – The examiner will gently slide a speculum into your vagina, which separates the vaginal walls when it opens. This may feel uncomfortable or weird, but it typically is not painful. Your healthcare professional will then use a small spatula or brush to swipe a small sample of cells from your cervix, which will then be sent to a lab for a pap smear (pap) test to make sure there isn’t any cancer or pre-cancer present.
  • The bimanual exam – During this part of the exam, your medical examiner will put one or two gloved fingers into your vagina while pressing down on your lower abdomen with their other hand. This is a way to check for things like enlarged ovaries, cysts, tumors, or abnormal size/shape/position of your uterus.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask You During a Well Woman Exam

  • When was your last period? How often do they occur and how long do they last?
  • Do you ever bleed or spot between menstrual cycles?
  • Do you have any pain, itching or unusual discharge from your vagina?
  • Are you sexually active? (In other words: have you ever had vaginal, anal, or oral sex?)
  • If yes, you have sex with men, women, or both? 
  • Is sex ever painful or do you ever bleed during or following sex?
  • Are you using birth control?
  • Are you trying to get pregnant? Have you ever had a pregnancy test?
  • What do you do to prevent STDs? When was your last STD test?
  • Do you or your family members have any medical conditions?

Frequently asked questions

  • Why are well woman exams important?

    Well woman exams are crucial for early detection of potential health issues, particularly those related to reproductive health.
  • What does a well woman exam typically include?

    A well woman exam typically includes a breast examination and a pelvic examination. The breast exam may involve a mammogram if the woman is at high risk of breast cancer.
  • What happens during a pelvic exam?

    A pelvic exam usually consists of an external exam, a speculum exam, and a bimanual exam.
  • What kind of questions might a doctor ask during a well woman exam?

    A doctor may ask questions about your menstrual cycles, sexual activity, birth control methods, and family medical history during a well woman exam.
  • Should I prioritize well woman exams even if I'm busy or find them uncomfortable?

    Yes, it's important to prioritize well woman exams despite potential discomfort or a busy schedule. These exams are vital for maintaining health and catching potential issues early.
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