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Do You Really Need the Annual Pelvic Exam?

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It’s not like we really want to do this every year; it's more like it's what we have been advised to do. Every year, we call the doctor’s office and make our appointment for a pelvic exam. For those of us who do not know, the pelvic exam includes a medical examination for cervical cancer (Pap smear), ovarian cancer, fibroids, cysts, endometriosis, any sexually transmitted diseases, inserting certain types of contraceptives (i.e., IUD or a fitting for diaphragm), as well as visually inspecting the vagina, uterus and external organs.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has recommended that instead of having this procedure done yearly, women between 21-30 years of age with no symptoms or risk factors can schedule their pelvic exam every other year, and for those 30 years of age and older, every three years. ACOG made this revision in 2009. So what’s interesting is that a lot of women still have their pelvic exams annually. This causes one to examine the pros and cons of doing so.

The argument for going in less often is that if a woman is healthy and asymptomatic, a yearly exam serves little purpose. Some doctors, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, feel that this time could be used talking about her real issues and concerns. It is fruitless to keep doing something out of tradition and not because it serves a purpose.

Some of the things checked for can be tested in other ways. For example, a blood test can pick up different STDs. Further, for those needing contraception (other than the IUD and being fitted for a diaphragm) a pelvic exam would not be needed. Lastly, doctors well know that this exam is not the favorite of many. In fact, it may be somewhat embarrassing and even painful for some.

On the other hand, other doctors feel that this exam can give indications as to any other conditions a patient my have. The Wall Street Journal interview with Dr. Laura Green, a San Francisco-based OB/GYN, revealed that she can determine how close a woman is to menopause by observing the color of her vaginal walls.

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HERWriter Guide

Hi Dita

Great post!

I have a pelvic exam every 2-3 years. I don't have any issues that would cause me to have it more than that (and these exams cannot detect ovarian cancer until it's showing later stage symptoms anyway) and I don't worry about it. The standard American testing timelines are crazy, I think, compared to the rest of the world and I think women are fear-mongered into having every test under the sun without really analyzing what's going on. I've gone to many a doctor, only to come out with scripts for MRIs, ultrasounds, x-rays and more - and nothing has ever come of them.

While I agree that vigilance and early detection is key, I think we over-test far too much.

Thanks for this post!

March 11, 2011 - 8:12am
(reply to Susan Cody)

Hey Susan,
Too true! I've just realized this of late, but I'm definitely going to be rethinking my appointments from now on.


March 11, 2011 - 5:10pm
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