Your gynecologist may order a colposcopy if your cervix appears abnormal during your pelvic exam and Pap smear, or if you have a history of prenatal DES exposure.
Colposcopy is a simple, 10- to 15-minute procedure that is painless and performed in a gynecologist’s office. You are positioned on the examination table like you are for a Pap smear, and an acetic acid (such as common table vinegar) is placed on the cervix.
Your physician will use a colposcope — a large, electric microscope that is positioned approximately 30 cm from the vagina — to view your cervix. A bright light on the end of the colposcope lets the gynecologist clearly see the cervix.
During the initial evaluation, a medical history is obtained, including gravidity (number of prior pregnancies), parity (number of prior deliveries), last menstrual period, contraception use, prior abnormal pap smear results, allergies, significant past medical history, other medications, prior cervical procedures, and smoking history. In some cases, a pregnancy test may be performed before the procedure. The procedure is fully described to the patient, questions are asked and answered, and the patient then signs a consent form.
A colposcope is used to identify visible clues suggestive of abnormal tissue. It functions as a lighted binocular microscope to magnify the view of the cervix, vagina, and vulvar surface. Low power (2× to 6×) may be used to obtain a general impression of the surface architecture. Medium (8× to 15×) and high (15× to 25×) powers are utilized to evaluate the vagina and cervix. The higher powers are often necessary to identify certain vascular patterns that may indicate the presence of more advanced pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions. Various light filters are available to highlight different aspects of the surface of the cervix. Acetic acid solution and iodine solution (Lugol’s or Schiller’s) are applied to the surface to improve visualization of abnormal areas.
Colposcopy is a safe procedure that carries very few risks. Rarely, complications from biopsies taken during colposcopy can occur, including:
Call your doctor if:
Bleeding that is heavier than what you typically experience during your period
Severe abdominal pain
After a complete examination, the colposcopist determines the areas with the highest degree of visible abnormality and may obtain biopsies from these areas using a long biopsy instrument, such as a punch forceps or SpiraBrush CX. Most doctors and patients consider anesthesia unnecessary; however, some colposcopists now recommend and use a topical anesthetic such as lidocaine or a cervical block to decrease patient discomfort, particularly if many biopsy samples are taken.
Following any biopsies, an endocervical curettage (ECC) is often done. The ECC utilizes a long straight curette or a cytobrush (like a small pipe-cleaner) to scrape the inside of the cervical canal. The ECC should never be done on a patient who is pregnant. Monsel’s solution is applied with large cotton swabs to the surface of the cervix to control bleeding. This solution looks like mustard and turns black when exposed to blood. After the procedure this material will be expelled naturally: patients can expect to have a thin coffee-ground like discharge for up to several days after the procedure. Alternatively, some physicians achieve hemostasis with silver nitrate.