No matter what stage of life she’s experiencing, a woman often forgets to take time for herself. A well woman exam may seem like just another item on the to-do list that has to wait until everyone else’s needs are met.
The truth is that an annual exam is one of the best ways to catch reproductive system issues before they cause major problems. In fact, women may not realize just how many types of disorders a gynecologist might detect during an annual exam. Early detection is one of the best ways to prevent or minimize complications caused by cancer, sexually transmitted infections (STI) and other women’s health issues. By detecting diseases and disorders before they become serious health threats, a San Antonio gynecologist can help women to make the most of every stage of life.
Reproductive System Cancers
Cancers of the uterus, ovaries and cervix often display no symptoms until they’ve spread to other parts of the body. Ovarian cancer, for example, has high five-year survival rates when detected early, but when detected at Stage III or later, survival rates plunge to less than 50 percent. A pelvic exam helps doctors to feel growths before they spread beyond the reproductive system. Doctors might also catch abnormal cells after performing a Pap smear. In addition, many women who have cancerous growths on the vulva, or on the external genitalia, don’t suspect that those unusual spots or itchy patches could be malignant. A doctor can spot and diagnose cancers before they become untreatable.
Not all growths within the reproductive system are cancerous, but they can still cause significant discomfort. Uterine fibroids can cause heavy menstrual bleeding, prolonged periods, pelvic pain and problems with urination or constipation. Ovarian cysts can cause irregular periods and pelvic pain; if they rupture, they can cause more serious problems. During a well woman exam, a gynecologist or nurse practitioner can detect growths even when they don’t cause symptoms. Together, women and their doctors can decide whether to treat the growths or let them go away on their own.
Reproductive System Disorders
Doctors can use an annual well woman exam to test for disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis. PCOS may cause irregular periods, especially delays between periods, and it can also create unusual hair growth, acne and clusters of small cysts within the ovaries. For some women, PCOS leads to complications like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Endometriosis, on the other hand, occurs when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus, usually on the ovaries, bowel or pelvic tissues. Left untreated, it can cause severe pain and may cause fertility problems. PCOS and endometriosis are just two examples of what doctors may detect during a well woman exam.
Urinary and Rectal Issues
In some cases, urinary and rectal symptoms are related to reproductive and sexual health. Frequent painful urination, for example, could be caused by repeated urinary tract infections (UTI). Doctors can offer advice on how to prevent UTIs, and they can rule out other causes of painful urination with a pelvic exam. During a well woman exam, doctors may perform a digital rectal exam to check for unusual growths or to help diagnose rectal bleeding. This fast, gentle procedure is an important way to catch unusual conditions early.
STIs and Other Infections
STIs, yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis can affect women of all ages. Although it may seem embarrassing to discuss these issues with a doctor, women need to treat these disorders as soon as possible to prevent more serious complications. For instance, a human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, left unmonitored, can lead to cervical cancer or anal cancer. Annual well woman exams are a great time to talk to doctors about treating and preventing STIs. Doctors can prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections like chlamydia, and they can provide tips on managing long-term viral issues like herpes or HPV.
In addition to preventing diseases and disorders, well woman visits provide excellent opportunities to discuss birth control, family planning and fertility. Most appointments also include a breast exam that can catch unusual growths in the breast tissue. Women face unique challenges in life and in health. Well woman exams can detect problems that an annual primary care physical may miss.