You mean my teenage daughter didn’t need to have that invasive pelvic exam, after all?
That’s exactly what the latest recommendations from a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine is saying. Reading the article brought me back to a dark place: I remember how embarrassing and painful getting internal pelvic exams was. It always hurt when a doctor stuck gloved fingers up my vagina. I hated it and felt violated by those invasive pelvic exams. And now it sounds like they were completely unnecessary.
This cross-sectional study found that more than two-and-a-half million young women aged 15-20 in the U.S. received a bimanual pelvic examination in the past year, and more than half were “potentially unnecessary.” About 2.2 million young women “received a Papanicolaou test in the past year, and 71.9% of these tests were potentially unnecessary.”
You’re looking at millions of our daughters subjected to invasive pelvic exams for no apparent medical reason.
“There are very few indications for a bimanual pelvic examination in girls and women,” study author Dr. George Sawaya, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC News.
The findings are especially staggering considering the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists changed its guidelines for pelvic exams back in 2012, stating that in most cases the exams were unecessary for those under the age of 21.
Why the pelvic exam, or better yet why not?
So… to be frank, what the hell? Why in the world would millions of these tests, where a doctor inserts two fingers in the vagina of a young woman while pressuring her stomach from above, continue? The study’s author suggests it may simply be habit, according to the news report, from outdated OB/GYN practices.
To be sure, pelvic exams may sometimes be necessary. And for an adult woman who is sexually active, they are likely to be less stressful, even though that has never been my experience.
The pelvic exam often is used to find possible signs of ovarian cysts, sexually transmitted infections, uterine fibroids or early-stage cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Perhaps. But I’m not sure I’m convinced. Especially since the Mayo Clinic notes that “Pelvic exams are also commonly performed during pregnancy,” its website states (updated in 2019). There is no reason for a doctor (or anyone else besides your intimate partner) to put his fingers up your vagina during pregnancy or childbirth. This practice may be “common” and “routine,” but it is medically counter-indicated (you run the risk of introducing an infection) and psychologically harmful.
Teens should not have invasive pelvic exams. Doing these exams has led to well-documented cases of sexual abuse during the exam, they cause tremendous stress and embarrassment, and there is no medical reason for a teen to have one in the absence of other symptoms.
“Many young women associate the examination with fear, anxiety, embarrassment, discomfort, and pain,” the authors wrote in the study. “Women with a history of sexual violence may be more vulnerable to these harms.”
These findings are disturbing, another instance of how we have over-medicalized our lives for no medical benefit. Other routine medical procedures that are causing more harm than good include withholding food during labor, epidural anesthesia, over-vaccination, and the recommendation to take Tylenol, a drug that should never be given to babies or young children.
“We want to empower girls and young women to ask, ‘Why do I need this [pelvic] exam?'” if a gynecologist recommends it, Sawaya told NBC News.