Smear tests, or cervical screening, are regular checks to make sure there are no changes to the cells of your cervix. A nurse uses a speculum and a small brush to take a sample of cells from the cervix that are sent away and tested.
For a lot of people, it’s a five minute appointment that may be slightly uncomfortable and embarrassing, but is over and done with quickly. But for others, smear tests aren’t just uncomfortable – they hurt and some women find them extremely painful.
Why might a smear test be painful?
There are many reasons why a smear test may be painful, including:
- Vaginismus, which is when the vagina suddenly tightens as you try to put something into it
- Cervical ectropion (cervical erosion)
- Vaginal dryness and other post-menopausal symptoms
- Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is when the genital area is deliberately cut, injured or changed
- Clenching, or feeling unable to relax, perhaps due to nerves, anxiety, a previous bad smear test or experience of sexual violence
- Other gynaecological issues.
Ways to make smear tests more comfortable
- During a smear test, you are in control. If it hurts at any point, ask your nurse to stop.
- Before the smear test, tell your nurse about any health problems, including ones we haven’t mentioned here, that cause pain. If they know beforehand then they can suggest ways to lessen any pain.
- If it is your first smear test, you’re feeling nervous or you have had a bad experience in the past, tell your nurse. They can talk it through with you and suggest things that may help.
- If you don’t want to go to the appointment alone or to explain why you find smear tests painful, you can take someone you trust with you. They can speak on your behalf or simply be there to offer support.
- Ask for a smaller speculum. Speculums come in different sizes, so you can ask your nurse to use a smaller size.
- If you have vaginal dryness, you can ask the nurse to give you a vaginal oestrogen cream or pessary. This can make inserting the speculum easier.
- Ask your nurse about breathing exercises that may help with the pain or look them up before you go to the appointment. Practicing them before may help.
- Some women find different positions can reduce pain and make them feel more comfortable, speak to your nurse to see what they suggest.
- Take a podcast, music or a meditation app to listen too, this may help you relax or distract you.
- Arrange to have your test on a day when you don’t have to rush somewhere straight afterwards, this will give you time in case you found your appointment difficult.
Everyone is different, so some of these tips may help and some may not be as useful. Do remember the pain isn’t in your head. If smear tests hurt, your nurse and any other healthcare professional should acknowledge that and offer you the right support.
More information and support
If you are worried or want to talk through anything we mention in this blog, call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000. Our trained volunteers can offer guidance and support. Check our opening hours before ringing.
If you have a medical question, you may want to use our Ask the Expert service.
You could also join our online forum to talk with others going through similar experiences.