What Is a Vaginal Speculum and How Might It Be Used?

The Lowdown on This Essential Gynecological Tool

doctor with vaginal speculum
Getty/Stockbyte/Keith Brofsky.

Definition: A vaginal speculum is a device, usually made of metal, which your gynecologist utilizes to open your vaginal walls. This use of the vaginal speculum allows your gynecologist a visual inspection of your vagina and cervix, as well as a way to collect the cervical cells necessary for a Pap smear test.

And Why Do I Need a Pap Smear?

A Pap smear is a test conducted in order to screen for cervical cancer.

It is generally recommended that this test be done annually, though Pap smears are no longer required for women under the age of 21. If you’re over 30 and have had three normal Pap tests in a row, it's acceptable to ask your doctor if you can dial back and get the test done just once every five years, combined with an HPV screening. Women over the age of 65 with a history of normal Pap test results may be able to stop having Pap smears altogether.

If you're still within the age range where Pap smear tests are recommended, and your results come back showing abnormal cervical changes, then a colposcopy is performed. A colposcopy is a diagnostic test that allows the doctor to view the cervix more closely.

What Can I Expect from My Pap Smear? Will It Hurt?

Not many women enjoy their annual visit to the gynecologist. But for the most part, unless you're experiencing chronic genital pain, nothing about the process should hurt.

First, you'll be asked to undress from the waist down. You will be given a sheet, almost like a giant paper towel to place over your mid-section and upper thighs, so you will not be completely exposed. Some gynecologists even offer robes made out of this paper-like material.

Next, you will be asked to lie back on the exam table and place your feet in stirrups.

Stirrups can be cold, so you may want to bring a pair of socks. The doctor will then have you scoot your hips down toward the edge of the table so that your legs bend and open up easily to either side.

A lubricated speculum will then be inserted into the vagina. Remember to take deep breaths when this happens, and to relax your muscles as much as possible. This will also help the vaginal muscles to relax, making the exam less uncomfortable. Discomfort is typically caused by too-tense muscles.

Next, using a small, mascara-like brush or swab, a doctor will take sample cells from the cervix. This is done by very gently rubbing of the cervix with the brush or swab. Some women have no sensation when this is done, while some experience mild discomfort.

After the sample is taken, the speculum is removed gently from the vagina. Congratulations! You made it!

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