Overview

An OB-GYN, or obstetrician-gynecologist, is a doctor who specializes in women’s health. The female body experiences many different biological functions, including menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. OB-GYNs provide care for all of this and more. Here’s a look at what they do and when you should consider seeing one.

What is an OB-GYN?

An obstetrician-gynecologist, or OB-GYN, has expertise in female reproductive health, pregnancy, and childbirth. Some OB-GYNs offer a wide range of general health services similar to your primary care doctor. Others focus on the medical care of the female reproductive system.

OB-GYNs also provide routine medical services and preventive screenings. This type of doctor has studied obstetrics and gynecology.

The term “OB-GYN” can refer to the doctor, an obstetrician-gynecologist, or to the sciences that the doctor specializes in, which are obstetrics and gynecology.

What is obstetrics?

Obstetrics is the branch of medicine related to medical and surgical care before, during, and after a woman gives birth. Obstetrics focuses on caring for and maintaining a woman’s overall health during maternity.

This includes:

  • pregnancy
  • labor
  • childbirth
  • the postpartum period

OB-GYNs can conduct office visits, perform surgery, and assist with labor and delivery. Some OB-GYNs provide services through a solo or private practice. Others do so as part of a larger medical group or hospital.

What is gynecology?

Gynecology is the branch of medicine that focuses on women’s bodies and their reproductive health. It includes the diagnosis, treatment, and care of women’s reproductive system.

This includes the:

  • vagina
  • uterus
  • ovaries
  • fallopian tubes

This branch of medicine also includes screening for and treating issues associated with women’s breasts.

Gynecology is the overarching field of women’s health from puberty through adulthood. It represents most of the reproductive care you’ll receive during your lifetime. If you become pregnant, you’ll need to go to an obstetrician.

What are the specialty areas?

Approximately 90 percent of OB-GYNs are generalists. This means they work across a wide range of OB-GYN services. Some choose to specialize in one or more different subspecialties. These may include:

Maternal-fetal medicine

These specialists care for patients with high-risk pregnancies and related medical conditions. You might see a maternal-fetal medicine specialist if you have:

  • chronic or gestational high blood pressure
  • gestational diabetes
  • blood-clotting disorders
  • premature labor

Reproductive endocrinology and infertility

These endocrinologists address issues related to infertility and the glands and hormones of the endocrine system. If you wish to become pregnant but are having trouble conceiving, you can go to a reproductive endocrinologist. They perform assisted reproduction procedures, such as:

  • in vitro fertilization
  • gamete intrafallopian transfer
  • zygote intrafallopian transfer
  • embryo transfer

Gynecologic oncology

These oncologists specialize in diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive system. This includes cancers of the:

  • uterus
  • cervix
  • ovaries
  • vulva

Female pelvic medicine and reproductive surgery

These surgeons focus on treating women with urinary tract disorders. They also focus on disorders of the muscle and connective tissue located just beneath a woman’s pelvis. This area is called the pelvic floor.

The pelvic floor may become weak as a result of pregnancy, age, or certain medical conditions. These specialists address:

  • urinary or fecal incontinence
  • vaginal or urinary tract infections
  • overactive bladder
  • bladder pain
  • pelvic organ prolapse

Education and training requirements

A doctor must first complete their bachelor’s degree and four years of medical school training to become an OB-GYN.

After medical school, you must complete four years of graduate-level education as a resident focusing on obstetrics and gynecology. During this period, doctors learn about reproductive issues and other health-related issues in women. In particular, they learn about:

  • diagnosis
  • treatment
  • management
  • prevention

Doctors complete their residency under the supervision of an attending doctor in a medical setting, such as in a hospital.

You must complete an additional three years of training after you finish your residency to specialize in a certain area.

After all required training has been completed, you must pass a specialty board certification exam. The American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology oversees this exam.

OB-GYNs must take a maintenance exam every six years to uphold their certification.

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What conditions do OB-GYNs treat?

OB-GYNs evaluate and treat a wide variety of conditions. What you see them for may depend on your age, health, and reproductive goals.

You may see an OB-GYN about:

  • abnormal bleeding
  • pelvic pain
  • genital itching
  • urinary incontinence
  • urinary tract or vaginal infections
  • endometriosis
  • breast disorders
  • hormonal disorders
  • infertility

What procedures do OB-GYNs perform?

Your OB-GYN may be trained in major or minor surgery for both inpatient and outpatient procedures. Examples of these procedures include:

  • dilation and curettage
  • biopsy
  • tubal ligation for female sterilization
  • laser surgery
  • hysterectomy, or the removal of the uterus
  • myomectomy, or the removal of fibroids

An OB-GYN is also trained to manage your health during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Procedures during this time can include:

  • in vitro fertilization
  • vaginal delivery
  • cesarean delivery
  • amniocentesis to determine sex and detect any abnormalities
  • forceps and vacuum deliveries

OB-GYNs also conduct regular preventive tests and screenings, such as

  • pelvic exams
  • pap smears
  • clinical breast exams
  • mammographies
  • cancer screenings

When should you see an OB-GYN?

The best way to treat health and medical issues is with preventive care. Women who are healthy and aren’t experiencing any reproductive health issues should get a preventive checkup once per year.

During this visit, your doctor may conduct evaluations, immunizations, or lab tests for certain diseases. Your age group generally helps your doctor determine which tests to order. Your doctor will also perform a pelvic exam. Depending on your age and health, your doctor may request additional tests or screenings.

In addition to your annual checkup, you should visit your OB-GYN when changes in your reproductive cycle occur. These changes may be routine, planned, or expected. These changes include:

  • your first menstrual cycle
  • pregnancy
  • perimenopause
  • menopause

These changes could also be abnormal, unusual, or unexpected. This includes:

  • changes in the volume or frequency of menstrual bleeding
  • unusual cramping
  • pain during urination
  • pain during intercourse

When deciding whether to visit your OB-GYN, consider your age and reproductive goals.

For example, if you’re sexually active, you may visit your OB-GYN for:

  • birth control, contraception, or sterilization
  • safe sex tips
  • advice on preventing or treating sexually transmitted infections or HIV
  • vaccination against the human papilloma virus
  • treatment and prevention of pain during sex
  • abnormal vaginal discharge
  • urinary tract infections

If you are or wish to get pregnant, you may visit your OB-GYN for:

  • help planning for your pregnancy
  • prenatal care
  • infertility treatment
  • advice on diet
  • labor and birthing options
  • genetic testing and screenings
  • advice on breast-feeding
  • postpartum depression

If you experience pain or difficulty before or during menstruation, you may visit an OB-GYN with questions about:

  • easing cramps
  • irregular or abnormal bleeding
  • mood swings
  • advice about premenstrual syndrome
  • cysts and fibroids
  • pelvic support problems

If you’re going through menopause or you’ve gone through menopause, you may visit your OB-GYN to address:

  • a low libido
  • vaginal dryness
  • hot flashes
  • bone loss
  • incontinence
  • hormone replacement therapy

Some women choose to visit their OB-GYN in lieu of a primary care physician. Not all OB-GYNs are comfortable serving in this capacity, though. You should talk to your doctor about whether they feel they’re the right person to serve your general health needs.

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