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Well Woman Exam

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

If you’re a woman over the age of 18, you may know that it’s important to get an annual well woman exam to make sure that you’re healthy. However, many women postpone this important exam because they’re uncomfortable with the procedure or just too busy. Meanwhile, a well woman exam can catch potential health problems early on, so making the time for it at least once a year can go a long way in ensuring that you’re reproductive health is as it should be.

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?
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