Most women, particularly those seeking general preventive care, require a complete history and physical examination as well as a gynecologic evaluation.
Gynecologic evaluation may be necessary to assess a specific problem such as pelvic pain, vaginal bleeding, or vaginal discharge. Women also need routine gynecologic evaluations, which may be provided by a gynecologist, an internist, or a family practitioner; evaluations are recommended every year for all women who are sexually active or > 18 years. Obstetric evaluation focuses on issues related to pregnancy. A gynecologic or an obstetric evaluation may include a pelvic examination when indicated based on history or symptoms and agreed to by the patient (1).
Many women expect their gynecologist to provide general as well as gynecologic health care. In addition to screening and possible physical examination, a well-woman visit should include counseling and discussion of immunizations based on age and risk factors. This visit may include counseling on general health and routine screening for the following:
For more information, see American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Gynecologic Practice: Well-Woman Visit.
- 1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Gynecologic Practice: Opinion No. 754: The utility of and indications for routine pelvic examination. Obstet Gynecol 132 (4):e174–e180, 2018. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000002895
Gynecologic history consists of a description of the problem prompting the visit (chief complaint, history of present illness); menstrual, obstetric, and sexual history; and history of gynecologic symptoms, disorders, and treatments.
Current symptoms are explored using open-ended questions followed by specific questions about the following:
- Pelvic pain (location, duration, character, quality, triggering and relieving factors)
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (quantity, duration, relation to the menstrual cycle)
- Vaginal discharge (color, odor, consistency), irritation, or both
Patients of reproductive age are asked about symptoms of pregnancy (eg, morning sickness, breast tenderness, delayed menses).
Menstrual history includes the following:
- Age at menarche
- Number of days of menses
- Length and regularity of the interval between cycles
- Start date of the last menstrual period (LMP)
- Dates of the preceding period (previous menstrual period, or PMP)
- Color and volume of flow
- Any symptoms that occur with menses (eg, cramping, loose stools)
Usually, menstrual fluid is medium or dark red, and flow lasts for 5 (± 2) days, with 21 to 35 days between menses; average blood loss is 30 mL (range, 13 to 80 mL), with the most bleeding on the 2nd day. A saturated pad or tampon absorbs 5 to 15 mL. Cramping is common on the day before and on the first day of menses. Vaginal bleeding that is painless, scant, and dark, is abnormally brief or prolonged, or occurs at irregular intervals suggests absence of ovulation (anovulation).
Obstetric history includes dates and outcomes of all pregnancies and previous ectopic or molar pregnancies.
Sexual history should be obtained in a professional and nonjudgmental way and includes the following:
- Frequency of sexual activity
- Number and sex of partners
- Use of contraception
- Participation in unsafe sex
- Effects of sexual activity (eg, pleasure, orgasm, dyspareunia)
- Transgender and gender nonconforming issues (1)
Past gynecologic history includes questions about previous gynecologic symptoms (eg, pain), signs (eg, vaginal bleeding, discharge), and known diagnoses, as well the results of any testing.
Screening for domestic violence should be routine. Methods include self-administered questionnaires and a directed interview by a staff member or physician. In patients who do not admit to experiencing abuse, findings that suggest past abuse include the following:
- Inconsistent explanations for injuries
- Delay in seeking treatment for injuries
- Unusual somatic complaints
- Psychiatric symptoms
- Frequent emergency department visits
- Head and neck injuries
- Prior delivery of a low-birth-weight infant
- 1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Gynecologic Practice: Opinion No. 823: Health care for transgender and gender diverse individuals. Obstet Gynecol 137 (3):e75–e88, 2021. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000004294
The examiner should explain the examination, which includes a breast examination and an abdominal examination, to the patient. Pelvic examinations should be done when indicated based on a women's medical history or symptoms. The patient and her gynecologic care practitioner should discuss and decide together whether a pelvic examination is needed.
For the pelvic examination, the patient lies supine on an examination table with her legs in stirrups and is usually draped. A chaperone is usually required, particularly when the examiner is male, and may also provide assistance.
The pelvic examination includes the following:
- External examination
- Speculum examination
- Bimanual examination
- Rectal examination (sometimes)
A pelvic examination is indicated for
- Symptomatic patients (eg, those with pelvic pain)
- Asymptomatic patients with specific indications (eg, need for cervical cancer screening)
No evidence supports or refutes pelvic examinations for asymptomatic, low-risk patients. Thus, for such patients, the decision about how often these examinations should be done should be made after the health care practitioner and patient discuss the issues.
The pubic area and hair are inspected for lesions, folliculitis, and lice. The perineum is inspected for redness, swelling, excoriations, abnormal pigmentation, and lesions (eg, ulcers, pustules, nodules, warts, tumors). Structural abnormalities due to congenital malformations or female genital mutilation are noted. A vaginal opening that is < 3 cm may indicate infibulation, a severe form of genital mutilation.
Next, the introitus is palpated between the thumb and index finger for cysts or abscesses in Bartholin glands. While spreading the labia and asking the patient to bear down, the examiner checks the vaginal opening for signs of pelvic organ prolapse: an anterior bulge (suggesting cystocele), a posterior bulge (suggesting rectocele), and displacement of the cervix toward the introitus (suggesting prolapsed uterus).
Before the speculum examination, the patient is asked to relax her legs and hips and breathe deeply.
The speculum is sometimes kept warm with a heating pad and may be moistened or lubricated before insertion, particularly when the vagina is dry. If a Papanicolaou (Pap) test or cervical culture is planned, the speculum is rinsed with warm water; lubricants have traditionally been avoided, but current-generation water-based lubricants can be used to increase patient comfort.
A gloved finger is inserted into the vagina to determine the position of the cervix. Then, the speculum is inserted with the blades nearly in the vertical plane (at about 1 and 7 o’clock) while widening the vagina by pressing 2 fingers on the posterior vaginal wall (perineal body). The speculum is fully inserted toward the cervix, then rotated so that the handle is down, and gently opened; it is pulled back as needed to visualize the cervix.
When the cervix is seen, the blades are positioned so that the posterior blade is deeper than the cervix (in the posterior fornix) and the anterior blade is allowed to rise gently and rest anterior to the cervix (in the anterior fornix). The examiner should take care to open the anterior blade slowly and gently and not to pinch the labia or perineum as the speculum is opened.
Normally, the cervix is pink and shiny, and there is no discharge.
A specimen for the Pap test is taken from the endocervix and external cervix with a brush and plastic spatula or with a cervical sampler that can simultaneously collect cells from the cervical canal and the transition zone; the specimen is rinsed in a liquid, producing a cell suspension to be analyzed for cancerous cells and human papillomavirus. Specimens for detection of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are taken from the endocervix. The speculum is withdrawn, taking care not to pinch the labia with the speculum blades.
Before the bimanual examination, the patient is asked to relax her legs and hips and breathe deeply.
The index and middle fingers of the dominant hand are inserted into the vagina to just below the cervix. The other hand is placed just above the pubic symphysis and gently presses down to determine the size, position, and consistency of the uterus and, if possible, the ovaries.
Normally, the uterus is about 6 cm by 4 cm and tilts anteriorly (anteversion), but it may tilt posteriorly (retroversion) to various degrees. The uterus may also be bent at an angle anteriorly (anteflexion) or posteriorly (retroflexion). The uterus is normally movable and smooth; irregularity suggests uterine fibroids (leiomyomas).
Normally, the ovaries are about 2 cm by 3 cm in young women and are not palpable in postmenopausal women. With ovarian palpation, mild nausea and tenderness are normal.
Significant pain when the cervix is gently moved from side to side (cervical motion tenderness) suggests pelvic inflammation.
After bimanual palpation, the examiner palpates the rectovaginal septum by inserting the index finger in the vagina and the middle finger in the rectum.
The examination should be adjusted according to children’s psychosexual development and is usually limited to inspection of the external genitals. Young children can be examined on their mother’s lap. Older children can be examined in the knee-chest position or on their side with one knee drawn up to their chest. Vaginal discharge can be collected, examined, and cultured.
Sometimes a small catheter attached to a syringe of saline is used to obtain washings from the vagina. If cervical examination is required, a fiberoptic vaginoscope, cystoscope, or flexible hysteroscope with saline lavage should be used.
In children, pelvic masses may be palpable in the abdomen.
For adolescents who are not sexually active, the examination is similar to that of children.
Some experts recommend that patients < 21 years have pelvic examinations only when medically indicated (eg, if a patient has a persistent, symptomatic vaginal discharge).
All sexually active girls and those who are no longer active but have a history of a sexually transmitted disease may be offered a pelvic examination. However, clinicians can often check for STDs using a urine sample or a vaginal swab and thus avoid doing a speculum examination.
Sexually active girls should also be screened annually for chlamydial infection and gonorrhea.
Pubertal status is assessed.
During the visit, information about contraception should be offered as appropriate, and recommendations for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine should be discussed. Clinicians should allow time for girls to speak privately about personal concerns (eg, contraception, safe sex, menstrual problems).
Testing is guided by the symptoms present.
Most women who are of reproductive age and have gynecologic symptoms are tested for pregnancy.
Urine assays of the beta-subunit of human chorionic gonadotropin (beta-hCG) are specific and highly sensitive; they become positive within about 1 week of conception. Serum assays are specific and even more sensitive.
Screening tests for cervical cancer
Tests used for cervical cancer screening include
- Papanicolaou (Pap) test
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) test
Specimens of cervical cells taken for the Pap test are examined for signs of cervical cancer; the same specimen may be tested for HPV. Screening tests are done routinely for most of a woman’s life (see also Cervical Cancer Screening).
For most women, frequency of screening depends mainly on the woman’s age and results of previous tests (1):
- Under age 21: Screening not needed
- From age 21 to 29: Usually every 3 years for the Pap test (HPV testing is not generally recommended)
- Age 30 to 65: Every 3 years if only a Pap test is done or every 5 years if a Pap test and an HPV test are done (more frequently in women at high risk of cervical cancer)
- After age 65: No more testing if test results have been normal in the preceding 10 years
Pap tests should be resumed if a woman has a new sex partner; it should be continued if she has several sex partners.
For women with certain indications (eg, women with HIV infection or previous cervical cancer), more frequent screening may be required, and screening may be started at a younger age.
Women who have had a total hysterectomy do not need to be screened unless the cervix was removed because of a high-grade precancerous lesion or cervical cancer. Women who have had a hysterectomy that spared the cervix still need cervical screening.
Microscopic examination of vaginal secretions
This examination helps identify vaginal infections (eg, trichomoniasis, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection).
Culture or molecular methods (eg, PCR) are used to analyze specimens for specific STD organisms (eg, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Chlamydia trachomatis) if patients have symptoms or risk factors; in some practices, such analysis is always done. Specimens may be obtained from urogenital sites including the endocervix (obtained during the Pap test) or, for gonorrhea or chlamydial infections, from urine. (See also the US Preventive Services Task Force practice guideline Chlamydia and gonorrhea: Screening.)
Cervical mucus inspection
Bedside inspection of a cervical mucus specimen by a trained examiner can provide information about the menstrual cycle and hormone states; this information may help in assessment of infertility and time of ovulation.
The specimen is placed on a slide, allowed to dry, and assessed for degree of microscopic crystallization (ferning), which reflects levels of circulating estrogens. Just before ovulation, cervical mucus is clear and copious with abundant ferning because estrogen levels are high. Just after ovulation, cervical mucus is thick and ferns little.
Imaging of suspected masses and other lesions usually involves ultrasonography, which may be done in the office; both transvaginal and transabdominal probes are used.
MRI is highly specific but expensive.
CT is usually less desirable because it is somewhat less accurate, involves significant radiation exposure, and often requires a radiopaque agent.
Laparoscopy can detect structural abnormalities too small to be detected by imaging, as well as abnormalities on the surfaces of internal organs (eg, endometriosis, inflammation, scarring). It is also used to sample tissue.
Culdocentesis, now rarely used, is needle puncture of the posterior vaginal fornix to obtain fluid from the cul-de-sac (which is posterior to the uterus) for culture and for tests to detect blood from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy or ovarian cyst.
Endometrial aspiration is done if women > 35 have unexplained vaginal bleeding. A thin, flexible, plastic suction curette is inserted through the cervix to the level of the uterine fundus; dilation is often not required. Suction is applied to the device, which is turned 360° and moved up and down a few times to sample different parts of the endometrial cavity. Sometimes the uterus must be stabilized with a cervical tenaculum.
Pituitary and hypothalamic hormones and ovarian hormones may be measured when infertility is evaluated or when abnormalities are suspected.
Other tests may be done for specific clinical indications. They include the following:
- Colposcopy: Examination of the vagina and cervix with a magnifying lens (eg, to identify areas that require biopsy)
- Endocervical curettage: Insertion of a curet to obtain tissue from deep inside the cervical canal (eg, used with colposcopy-directed biopsy to diagnose cervical cancer)
- Dilation and curettage (D & C): Spreading of the vaginal walls with a speculum, dilation of the cervix, and insertion of a curet to remove tissue from the endometrium or the uterine contents by scraping or scooping (eg, to treat incomplete abortions). D & C is usually done using anesthesia or analgesia.
- Hysterosalpingography: Fluoroscopic imaging of the uterus and fallopian tubes after injection of a radiopaque agent into the uterus (eg, done to check for pelvic and intrauterine lesions, which may interfere with fertilization or implantation or cause dysmenorrhea)
- Hysteroscopy: Insertion of a thin viewing tube (hysteroscope) through the vagina and cervix into the uterus (used to view the interior of the uterus and identify abnormalities and/or to do some surgical procedures using instruments threaded through the laparoscope)
- Loop electrical excision procedure (LEEP): Use of a thin wire loop that conducts an electrical current to remove tissue (eg, for biopsy or as treatment)
- Sonohysterography (saline infusion sonography): Injection of isotonic fluid through the cervix into the uterus during ultrasonography (eg, to detect and evaluate small endometrial polyps, other uterine abnormalities, and tubal lesions)
- 1. US Preventive Services Task Force: Screening for Cervical Cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA 320 (7):674–686, 2018. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.10897
The following are some English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Gynecologic Practice: Well-Woman Visit: This web site provides updated guidelines for the well-woman visit, which should include counseling about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and minimizing health risks, screening, evaluation, a comprehensive history, and immunizations (based on age and risk factors).
- US Preventive Services Task Force: Cervical Cancer: Screening: The benefits and harms of cervical cancer screening for high-risk types of human papillomavirus (hrHPV) are systematically reviewed, based on updated evidence for cervical cancer screening. The focus is on the effectiveness of hrHPV screening strategies compared with cytology-based screening. The review concluded that primary hrHPV screening detected higher rates of CIN 3+ at first-round screening than cytology did.
- US Preventive Services Task Force: Chlamydia and gonorrhea: Screening. This review evaluates the effectiveness of screening for gonorrhea and chlamydial infection, which are often asymptomatic. It concluded that screening tests can accurately detect these disorders, that they reduce complications of these disorders, and that they cause little or no harm.