As someone who is not sexually active for religious reasons, I’m still *intimately* aware of what it’s like to hoist myself on a sterile exam table and mount my legs in uncomfortable stirrups at the gynecologist. You’re probably wondering why. Well, since my mother has a history of endometriosis, I’ve frequented a gynecologist to ensure that I haven’t inherited the potentially fertility-altering diagnosis (fingers crossed, I’m in the clear). Everybody knows that the first question a gyno asks before they get up close and personal with your lady parts is if you’ve ever been sexually active. Yet, people falsely assume that visiting a doctor who pokes around for STDs and preps patients for childbirth is reserved for people who are having sex. Spoiler alert: There is way more to these visits than routine pelvic exams.
I, like many others, still check on my ovaries even if I don’t plan on having a baby or sexual partner any time soon. “It’s easy to forget that an OB/GYN is a primary care specialty,” explains Dr. Kecia Gaither, OB/GYN. “As such, it’s recommended that women have annual exams for not only Pap smears and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases—but also preventative health evaluations specific to women.” According to Gaither, there are other legit reasons why someone should visit a gynecologist. Read about them all, below.
1. Physical Exams
Many women actually use an obstetrician/gynecologist as their primary care doctor. Which, by the way, makes a whole lot of sense if you’re already at your annual checkup. Killing two birds with one stone is the way to go sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with a women’s health issue that gynos see on a regular basis. For example, if you’re complaining about fatigue and weight gain, your gyno may test your thyroid—which will save you a trip and possible vacation day to your physician. “Depending on your age, family history, medical history your OB/GYN will obtain a thorough medical history, a physical exam, and pertinent testing as dictated by history and findings on your physical,” Dr. Gaither says. But, this does not mean you should shut out your family doctor when dealing with things like mental illnesses, respiratory issues, metabolic conditions, digestive diseases, and other all-inclusive assessments. The bottom line: It’s always wise to see a specialist!
2. Breast Exams
Like your primary care physician, your gynecologist can examine you for breast cancer with a mammogram or an ultrasound. But, if your breasts feel different than usual, you shouldn’t wait for a yearly checkup to make an appointment—especially if you have a family history of breast cancer. “[In that case], a patient should refer to genetic analysis for breast cancer,” Dr. Gaither says. This includes the BRCA gene blood test that can determine if you have changes (mutations) in your DNA that increase the risk of breast cancer.
Besides breast cancer, gynos check for other gynecological cancers like endometrial, cervical, ovarian, and vulva cancer. Most of these diagnoses are determined through pelvic exams and pap smears. They’ll then check your lower abdomen, which is by far the most uncomfortable part, to feel the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries for any abnormalities. Once it’s done with, though, you’ll feel so much better knowing that you’re putting your health first. Plus, because these doctors specialize in women’s health, they may be more attuned to these areas of your body that need special TLC.
4. Vaginal Discharge
If you’ve expressed concern about the odor or color of your discharge (most of us have been there!), your gyno will check for yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and STDs. Because, yes, contrary to popular opinion, diseases can be transmitted without intercourse! Additionally, your doc may take this opportunity to educate you about good hygiene routines or cleansing products that cause itchiness and inflammation.
5. Abnormal Bleeding
According to Dr. Gaither, abnormal bleeding may be the symptom of fibroids or polyps. Which, of course, sounds like medical jargon but in reality just means non-cancerous growths that form in the uterine wall. Sounds scary as hell, but it’s nothing to worry too much about, though it can be painful and get in the way of your ability to conceive if it’s not treated properly. During a pelvic examination, your gyno may feel your uterus for any irregular shapes and ultimately use an ultrasound if they detect something unusual. Upon inspection, they can examine how these complications may affect your fertility.
Ultimately, people will always assume gynecologists only see patients who are sexually active unless they’re educated about the many ways in which these doctors examine all women’s health issues. So, the next time you’re thinking of paying a visit to your gyno you can be sure that they’re on the lookout for way more than just STDs.