If you’ve gotten a bit behind on your gynecological checkups, you might be thinking it’s no big deal. Maybe you’re not particularly sexually active, or you’ve been with one person for a long time.
Or maybe you know you need to go, but you’ve been putting it off because you hate all the invasive testing. They’re always telling you pap smears and pelvic exams don’t hurt, but for you they’re always embarrassing and uncomfortable.
Whatever the reason, it’s a good idea to put your fears aside and get your regular screenings anyway. Gynecology isn’t just for pregnancy and STI prevention (though those are important parts). It can also improve your overall health and potentially save your life. Here’s how:
Birth Control and Family Planning
Many peoples’ family planning needs end at the condom aisle. And it’s easier than ever to get many brands of birth control pills online. For most folks who want to go on the pill, a gynecological visit isn’t really necessary.
For people who want something other than the pill, though, a gynecological visit might be in order. You may want an option that doesn’t require regularly remembering to take a medication. Or you may have pre-existing conditions or be on medications that might make the pill unsafe.
For example, if you have high blood pressure or blood clotting problems, you shouldn’t take combination birth control pills. And its main alternative, the progestin-only pill, isn’t safe for people who’ve had cancer or have lupus.
Whatever the case may be, a gynecologist or family planning clinic may be able to recommend other options. These include the patch, ring, shot, or implant, IUDs, cervical caps, diaphragms, Phexxi, and more. They can also help explain how to more effectively practice natural birth control options like the Fertility Awareness Method.
Detecting Reproductive Health Issues and Cancers
Getting regular gynecological check ups can help detect and prevent the development of what could become serious reproductive health issues. These include conditions like uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, polycystic ovary syndrome, and endometriosis.
Undetected or untreated, these illnesses can cause a lot of discomfort, pain, and other severe symptoms. Symptoms can range from excess hair growth and weight gain, to painful periods and painful sex, to excessive bleeding and infertility.
With routine preventative gynecological care, these conditions can sometimes be caught before you experience symptoms. For instance, uterine fibroids are typically detected by a healthcare provider during a routine pelvic screening. If you do find out you have one of these conditions, it’s especially important to get regular checkups and care.
Gynecological checkups and screenings are also necessary for cancer prevention and detection. Gynecological providers regularly screen for cervical, ovarian, and even breast cancers. When detected early, the survival rates of each of these cancers is much higher. That’s why it’s extremely important to catch such cancers as early as possible.
STI Checks and Treatment
Anyone who’s sexually active should be tested regularly for the possibility of sexually transmitted infections. Even if you only have one partner, there’s no way to guarantee they’re STI-free. And condoms can help prevent against STIs, but they aren’t an absolute guarantee. They don’t prevent all transmission of skin-to-skin disease, and they can be prone to breakage.
It’s fairly simple to get tested by a gynecologist or at a family planning or STI clinic. Many STIs, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, can be detected with a simple swab test. Others, like HIV and syphilis tests, may require you to get bloodwork done.
It is now possible to get certain kinds of testing for sexually transmitted infections at home. But you typically still need to mail your test kit into a lab or medical facility for analysis. And if you do get diagnosed with an STI, you may still have to make an appointment to get treatment.
Regularly getting tested for STIs can help keep you and your partner(s) — and their partners, if applicable — safe. It’s a good idea to get tested at least once a year, or every time you get a new partner. People who have multiple partners or who have unprotected sex should get tested more frequently (eg. every 3-6 months). People who have sex with HIV positive partners should get regular HIV tests and consider pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
Period and Urinary Issues
If you have painful, heavy, or irregular periods, regular gynecological visits can help you figure out why. A healthcare provider can determine the cause and help you get the appropriate medication or treatment. Before visiting your doctor, do your best to document your cycles (ie. start and end dates, flow, symptoms).
Period issues can be caused by a range of factors, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. They could mean anything from issues with your hormonal birth control to an eating disorder to certain kinds of cancer. They could also be caused by other medications, or they could mean you might be pregnant.
Likewise, if you have painful or frequent urination, regular gynecological check ups may be able to help. Your gynecologist or related healthcare provider can check for issues ranging from UTIs to interstitial cystitis. If applicable, they can prescribe medications or refer you for surgical intervention, depending on your situation.
Certain conditions may be out of the scope of your gynecological facility’s practice. But even so, regular check-ups and screenings can make sure you get the information you need to pursue additional medical treatment. A solid relationship with your healthcare provider can also mean high odds of referrals to other providers you like and trust.
Putting Your Health and Safety First
Besides gynecological health, a good relationship with your healthcare provider can also mean better all-around wellness. A doctor that sees you regularly might notice incidental symptoms like sudden weight or behavioral changes. This could mean early detection of serious issues.
Increasingly, many gynecological care centers and other medical facilities are also screening for signs of abuse and domestic violence. Even if your practice doesn’t have a specific screening, a provider could still notice bruises or other signs of violence on your body. If you’re experiencing abuse or concerned it might happen, a checkup could be a safe and confidential way to get help.