The purpose of a pelvic exam is either to assess a patient's overall gynecological health or to diagnose a condition causing specific gynecological symptoms, explains Mayo Clinic. Gynecological conditions that a pelvic exam can help detect include ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer and various sexually transmitted infections. Examples of symptoms that may prompt a doctor to perform a non-routine pelvic exam include urinary changes, abnormal vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain.
A standard pelvic exam includes a visual exam of the vulva and vagina, a Pap smear and a bimanual exam, according to Mayo Clinic. During the visual exam of the vulva, the doctor looks at the external portion of the patient's genital area for any swelling, sores, redness and other signs of health problems. The doctor then inserts a speculum into the vagina and performs a visual exam of the vagina and cervix, looking for any visible abnormalities on these internal reproductive organs.
With the speculum still in place, the doctor performs the Pap smear, during which he collects some of the patient's cervical cells. The doctor's office sends the sample to a laboratory, where testing of the cells for signs of cervical cancer occurs, as WebMD reports.
The doctor inserts two gloved fingers into the vagina while pressing on the patient's lower abdomen with the other hand during the bimanual component of the pelvic exam, as described by Mayo Clinic. This allows the doctor to check if the ovaries and uterus are the right size and to feel for any abnormal growths.