Editor’s Note: Anyone with a cervix can get a pap smear, but for this article, we included sources who generally referred to these people as women.
Experiencing pain and cramping after your pap smear? It’s not just you. A pap smear isn’t really a doctor’s appointment that most of us look forward to, but it’s an important routine part of monitoring cervical health. According to the CDC, those with a cervix should begin pap smear screenings at age 21. (Good news: if your pap smear results come back normal then you can wait three years until your next one. Otherwise, you should speak with your ob-gyn.) While a pap smear is a routine appointment, many people experience pain, discomfort, and cramping after their pap smear — which doesn’t exactly make you excited to set up your next exam.
Your pap smear appointment isn’t one to miss, though. “A pap smear is a sampling of the cells on a woman’s cervix that screens for precancer and cancer of the cervix,” San Diego-based ob-gyn Christine Carter Sterling, MD, tells POPSUGAR. “It is not a biopsy but rather a gentle swiping of cells with a plastic wand and small bristle brush.” So why does this “gentle swiping” feel so uncomfortable for some people, to the point of experiencing post-pap smear pain and cramping? POPSUGAR spoke with gynecological experts on the possible causes for pain or cramping some might feel after receiving a pap smear, and what you should do to manage it.
Pap Smear Pain: Why Do I Cramp Afterwards?
Pap smears can be uncomfortable enough in the moment, but some people might experience pain after their pap smear as well. Why? Post-pap smear pain and cramping may happen due to the cervix’s sensitivity to touch and manipulation. “Some women are incredibly sensitive to any manipulation of their cervix, and others have very little sensation,” says Dr. Sterling.
Everyone can feel pap smear pain differently. “The way that organs perceive pain is quite different than those on external skin, which has different nerve pathways,” says Nicole Williams, MD, of The Gynecology Institute of Chicago. “There are no direct nerve endings on the cervix, so when it’s touched, you feel it all over the lower pelvis as pressure or cramping,” says Dr. Williams. So, after a pap smear, you could have cramping along with some light bleeding, neither of which are typically cause for concern.
In addition to pain caused by the doctor taking the sample from your cervix, you might also experience lingering discomfort from the use of the vaginal speculum. The speculum is the instrument doctors use to dilate your vaginal canal, opening it up so they can perform exams and access the area for procedures like the pap smear. This tool alone can cause pain and discomfort, especially for people with conditions like vaginismus (which causes vaginal muscles to involuntarily contract or tense). If you have vaginismus or are especially sensitive to the speculum, let your doctor know before they do the pap smear and discuss how you can make the exam more comfortable.
Pap Smear Pain: How Do I Treat It?
If you’re experiencing pain or cramping after your pap smear, it should resolve in a few hours. If you can, take it easy and sit or lie down for a bit as you wait for it to pass. If the pain hangs around for longer than a few hours or becomes severe, check back with your provider. “Pain after a pap smear should never be severe or debilitating,” Dr. Sterling says. “If you are experiencing severe pain, it is important to let your ob-gyn know right away.”
– Additional reporting by Angelica Wilson and Maggie Ryan