Making cervical smears more comfortable
Let us guess. You read an article on cervical cancer on the web, and how it affects more than 3,000 women a year in the UK alone. You went ahead and booked an appointment for a cervical smear test.
But now you feel nervous and worried about it. If this is your first test, you may have a few questions, like: What’s the process of a smear test? Will it be painful? Is it embarrassing? We answer these questions below.
What is a smear test?
A smear test, also known as a pap test (short for Papanicolaou, the name of the inventor of the procedure), is a screening technique for abnormal cells (that could turn into cervical cancer). In this procedure, cells are collected from the cervix (the entrance of the uterus) with the use of a speculum and a soft brush, and sent to a laboratory for investigation.
These cells, after investigation, help to determine the presence of cancerous or precancerous cells. A smear test is primarily used as an early detection treatment for cervical cancer.
During your smear test, your doctor will address any concerns you may have, before giving you privacy and asking you to undress from the waist down. You will then lie on a bed, and the doctor will ask you to bring both feet in towards your thighs, and let your knees fall apart.
The speculum will then be inserted into your vagina, and opened slightly to allow the brush to take a sample from your cervix. The brush and speculum are then removed, and you can get dressed and continue with your day. The appointment typically takes no longer than five to 10 minutes, with the test itself taking less than a minute to complete.
Is a smear test painful?
A major concern amongst many women in relation to smear tests is how painful the test may be. A smear test is not usually painful, however, some women have reported feeling discomfort. This discomfort can range from a slight feeling of pressure, to mild pain, a burning sensation.
In very rare cases pain can prevent you from continuing with the test. It is important to note that a smear test is very quick, and any discomfort you may feel will only take place for a very short amount of time.
The possible reasons for pain during a smear test could be an existing injury or past sexual trauma, a psychological worry, embarrassment or even vaginismus. Vaginismus is a condition where the muscles around the vagina involuntarily tighten, causing pain upon penetration. Those with this condition may first notice the pain during sex.
Vaginismus often goes unreported, which is why it is not often talked about. However, if you believe you may be suffering from vaginismus, it is recommended that you consult your doctor before your smear test, so that they can make adjustments for you (for example, using a smaller speculum), or advise of an effective vaginismus treatment to make the experience more comfortable.
What are the benefits of a smear test?
Now that you know what a smear test is and what to expect, it is important to talk about its benefits, too. These are:
- Early detection of cervical cancer
- Diagnosis of precancerous conditions to prevent cervical cancer
- It’s a simple and painless procedure
- It’s an effective way to screen for cervical cancer
- It takes just a few minutes
Making cervical smears more comfortable: Five things to remember
A simple five-minute smear test is quick, simple and painless for most women, but it’s common to feel nervous – especially if this is your first test. The benefits of having a smear test greatly outweigh the discomfort that you may feel.
However, if you are worried about discomfort or pain, there are a few techniques that you can use to make cervical smears more comfortable. Here are five things to remember.
1) Find distractions
If you are feeling nervous, try finding a distraction. Nervousness or worry can make your pelvic muscles tighten, which can cause difficulties when inserting a speculum. You could use a mental distraction technique such as thinking about your to-do list for the day, an upcoming event or something which makes you happy, to keep your mind occupied. Alternatively, you could ask about wearing headphones during your test so that you can listen to music or a podcast to distract yourself.
2) Breathe in, breathe out
Simple techniques such as slow or controlled breathing can help calm your mind and body, relaxing you before and during the test. Try breathing in for four counts, holding your breath for four, and breathing out for four – this is called ‘box breathing’, and is used by everyone from military personnel to athletes.
3) Relieve yourself (literally!)
While this is a no brainer, it is a good idea to use the toilet facilities before you lie down on the examination bed. This can prevent unnecessary clenching of the pelvic muscles and will also prevent you from feeling uncomfortable during the course of the test.
If you are feeling pain or discomfort during the test, do not hesitate to communicate with your doctor. Remember, a doctor can only provide effective treatment if there is proper communication from both parties involved.
5) Take painkillers (if necessary)
Sometimes, women may report mild discomfort or pain after a smear test. Therefore, it is recommended to take a painkiller half an hour prior to your appointment to prevent any painful sensations post-examination.
Ready for your smear test?
A cervical smear screening, or pap smear, is an essential test that acts as a preventive measure against cervical cancer as it can detect precancerous abnormalities.
While you may be worried about the examination, remember that you are in control and can stop the test at any time. Feeling embarrassed? Take into account that your doctor has performed hundreds (even thousands) of pelvic exams and will not judge your body – in fact, their only aim is to make sure that you are healthy! Still, if you feel uncomfortable it is important to communicate with your doctor and do what you can to relax yourself.