Your Medical Tests Explained

It's a fact of midlife: After 40, we're more likely to need certain medical tests to preserve our health. Learning that you have to undergo something with a hard-to-pronounce name (what is a colposcopy, anyway?) can be unsettling, but it doesn't have to be. Here's what to expect during some of the most common procedures, and what doctors would demand for themselves if they were on the table.

Colonoscopy

You need it if: You turn 50, to check for growths in your colon (called polyps) that can become cancerous.

How it works: The day before your appointment (usually at a hospital or outpatient endoscopy center), you'll clean out your colon with the aid of liquid laxatives--what many people consider the most unpleasant part of the procedure. The next day, after you're sedated through an IV, the gastroenterologist will ease a thin, flexible tube into your rectum that gently expands your colon with air. The doctor will pass the scope, which is fitted with a camera, through your entire colon, searching for and removing polyps. The procedure is painless. The examination takes 15 to 30 minutes; you can go home after a 45-minute recovery period.

Essential tips: Watermelon and sesame seeds can obscure the view of the bowel lining, so don't eat either for a few days beforehand. After the procedure, you'll be very hungry, so have food ready to eat as soon as you get home.

You should get results: Immediately; if the doctor removed polyps, a test to check them for cancer can take a week.

Colposcopy

You need it if: You've had an abnormal Pap test.

How it works: As in a regular pelvic exam, you lie on a table in your gynecologist's office with your feet in the stirrups, the walls of your vagina expanded with a speculum. Your doctor will use an instrument to keep your cervix open, which can pinch, and swab the area with a mild acid to clear mucus and make the cells easier to see. A colposcope is used to illuminate and magnify the area up to 60 times to examine cervical cells. If there are any abnormal spots, a small sample of the tissue is sent for testing. Any soreness is minor for most patients after a biopsy, but don't have sex or use tampons for at least a week. Wear a sanitary pad, because spotting or a dark discharge is normal for a few days. You can usually resume everyday activities immediately.

Essential tips: Ask your doctor to apply some benzocaine gel to numb the area before the exam.

You should get results: In 5 to 7 days.

Endometrial Ablation

Consider it if: You're among the 20 percent of premenopausal women who have extremely heavy menstrual bleeding and for whom medication is ineffective.

How it works: Although this hospital (or outpatient surgery facility) procedure doesn't usually end periods, it can lighten them; many patients still have a menstrual cycle and experience some discharge and bleeding. After sedating you, the gynecological surgeon expands your uterus, usually by filling it with fluid. Next, a lighted viewing instrument and an electrical, laser, or thermal tool are inserted to burn away a thin layer of the uterine lining. You should be able to go home the same day.



For more health tips, check out the latest issue of Prevention, on shelves now!

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