Today’s life is fast-paced. But we need to allot some time for the care of our health. There are certain diseases which may cause morbidity (suffering) or even death if not diagnosed and treated in time. It takes just a few medical tests done regularly to detect these diseases.
Pap smear: One such test is a Pap smear for women. It is the microscopic examination of the cells scraped from the cervical opening. Cervix is that part of the uterus, which opens above the vagina. Pap smear is a screening test for the Human Papilloma Virus. During this procedure, the vaginal canal is opened with a speculum and cells from the outer opening of the cervix and the endocervix are collected. Also called the Papanicolaou test, it detects these abnormal cells in the endocervical canal, which is also called the transformation zone of the female reproductive system. The microscopic examination of these cells can reveal abnormalities like pre-cancerous or cancerous activities. This is a routine test to rule out cervical cancer, which if detected late or remains undetected can kill.
Though 21 is the ideal age to start taking this diagnostic test, sexual activity is an important pre-requisite for it. Once a woman is sexually active, it has to be done every two years. Gynaecologist, Dr. Rashmi Gama Mascarenhas explains, “Since age is an important factor, women in the age-group of 35 to 40 should get their pap smear tested. Besides if there is a history of cancer in a patient’s family and she is getting continuous white discharge, she needs to go for it at the earliest. The sample can be given at any time of the day.”
Because of the position from where the smear is taken, it could be uncomfortable and a pap smear may cause some discomfort, which may emulate menstrual cramps. There might be some pressure during the exam. Bleeding may also occur to some extent after the test.
Research also says that pap smear test is not 100% accurate. In a small number of cases, cervical cancer can be missed. In most cases, development of cervical cancer takes place very slowly and to detect significant changes follow-up pap smears should be done for treatment at the right time.
Mammography: Another important diagnostic parameter is mammography, which detects abnormal changes in the mammary glands or breast tissues in women. Low dose radiation used in this technique are accurate enough to detect even small benign or malign masses in the breast tissues, much before they are felt by the woman or her doctor by touch. Malignant masses may lead to breast cancer, which may be fatal. Dr. Rashmi insists, “Mammography becomes important after the age of 35. This test can be done any time of the day, every 2 years. Specialized radiological centers perform this test.”
Mammograms give a quick and easy picture of activity in the breast tissues, within a few seconds. Each exposed breast, one after the other, is examined by the machine. The technician places each breast between two plastic plates one at a time. The plates press the breast and flatten it. Though this may be uncomfortable, a clear X-ray of each breast is available.
Blood sugar-fasting: Fasting blood sugar (glucose to be specific) levels in blood also give a clear picture about the presence or absence of diabetes in a patient. Early detection of blood sugar levels can also save lives, since chronic diabetes is a killer disease. Food is broken down for energy during digestion into its components, like glucose. Insulin produced by pancreas, regulates the glucose levels in blood. If anybody becomes insulin-resistant or their pancreas produces less of it, the sugar level in blood increases. Endocrinologist, Dr. Ameya Joshi informs that the fasting blood sugar needs to be checked yearly after 35 years of age. If there is a strong family history or if the patient is overweight, this test needs to be taken even before 35. This blood test needs to be taken while on empty stomach, 8 hours after having food, early in the morning.
Blood sugar test can be done at any pathological laboratory. Early diagnosis and treatment of diabetes can prevent eye, heart, kidney and nerve complications arising from the increase in sugar levels in blood. According to Dr. Ameya Joshi, “The bottom line is that it is a latent disease and by the time it is usually diagnosed it may be too late and becomes complicated.”
Thyroid function test: The two thyroid hormones- T3 and T4 regulate human metabolism. When there is less production of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), the production of thyroid hormones increases, resulting in hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism, or the supernormal activity of the thyroid gland, causes thyroid toxicity and the metabolism gets speeded up. On the other hand, increase in TSH suppresses the production of thyroid hormones causing hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism or subnormal activity of the thyroid gland causes myxodema. More common in women, myxedema results in mucous (a slippery discharge from the lining of some membranes in the body) retention in the skin. Symptoms include swelling of the face, limbs and hands. Due to hypothyroidism, metabolism slows down and dullness results.
Irregular menstruation is a possible indication of thyroid in women, so that is often the right time to get the test done. Tremors and diarrhea are also indicated as other possible symptoms for thyroid abnormality. Dr. Joshi adds, “After menopause it would be better to take a 5 yearly test for thyroid. Thyroid disorder can cause weight gain, forgetfulness, easy fatigue, lethargy, growth gets retarded and causes infertility.”
Thyroid test can be taken at any age, if the relevant symptoms are present. However, a family history makes it all the more necessary to have it done at 20. Otherwise, the recommended age is 30 and if the tests are normal, they can be repeated every five years. Detected and treated earlier, the effects of thyroid dysfunction can be reversed, easily. Any recognized pathological laboratory can do thyroid function test. Some laboratories are collection centers and they send the blood sample to a bigger laboratory.
DEXA scan: Normally, calcium and other minerals are released into the blood stream from bone fluid in a process called bone resorption. At the same time, minerals broken down from food are circulated in the blood to come together to lay down new bone material. Imbalance between bone resorption and bone formation causes osteoporosis or ‘porous bones’.
This imbalance is often due to hormonal changes in an older woman’s body, which results in a reduction in Bone Mineral Density (BMD). Osteoporotic people in old age have a tendency to experience hip and spine fracture. These fractures are one of the most common causes of morbidity and mortality in the old age. Osteoporosis can be easily treated and these complications are preventable.
Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA – currently called DXA scan) measures BMD. When 2 X-ray beams with different energy levels are aimed at the patient’s bones, the BMD is calculated from the absorption of each beam by the bones. Most widely used technology, DEXA scan, according to Dr. Joshi, is usually recommended every 2 years after 55 years of age. He adds, “DEXA scan can be started by women at 45 years or at menopause if they have arthritis, early menopause or thyroid disorders or take steroids. DEXA scan can be done at a diagnostic centre with the facility for same. Insist on the scan of lumbar spine and hip DEXA as forearm and heel DEXA is not reliable and should never be done for treatment and screening.”