The How, When and Why of Testicular Self-Exams
Touching your balls is just what the doctor ordered.
Masturbation cracks aside, young men and adolescents are more prone to testicular cancer than other age groups with an average age at diagnosis of 33 years, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. As a result, testicular self-exams are encouraged at an early age. They may be integral for identifying changes in the scrotum and potentially detecting testicular cancer at its onset.
Boys should begin monthly testicular self-exams at age 15 and continue the habit throughout adulthood. However, men shouldn't rely solely on these exams as a preventive measure for testicular cancer. If you're just beginning to implement testicular self-exams into your regular routine, find out the how and why of this important test.
What experts say about testicular self-exams
Medical organizations have differing views on the effectiveness of testicular self-exams for detecting cancer and the examination itself as a whole.
Testicular Cancer Society
The TCS stresses the importance of self-exams to detect testicular cancer because it believes this type of cancer is rarely found by a physician. Some doctors' regular medical checkups don't include an inspection of the genitals after the age of 18 or 21. Thus, men are sometimes left to fend for themselves in terms of testicular preventive health.
American Cancer Society
The ACS urges that an examination of the testicles be a regular part of men's yearly physicals with a doctor. Men with an undescended testicle or a personal or family history of testicular cancer should consider monthly self-exams as well. However, the ACS does not offer a recommendation for self-exams for all men because it states that not enough research has been done to determine their effectiveness in reducing the death rate for testicular cancer.
American Urological Association
The AUA believes monthly self-exams and yearly physical exams by a physician are integral to detecting the onset of testicular cancer.
What men should look for during a testicular self-exam
To perform an effective testicular self-exam, men should have a basic idea of what they're looking for down there—without obsessing. Conducting the exam too often makes the process inefficient; you can't be familiar with any changes in the testicles if you're examining them daily or even weekly.
When you do your monthly exam, take care to check for the following:
- Swelling of the scrotum
- Pea-sized lumps on the testicles
- Soreness, heaviness or pain
- Changes in the color or a noticeable size difference of either testicle
Changes don't always signal testicular cancer
Although testicular self-exams are most often thought of as a tool for discovering testicular cancer, they can also identify other conditions. Only 4 percent of lumps on the testicles or swelling of them indicate testicular cancer, according to estimates from the United Kingdom National Health Service.
If you notice swelling, lumps, inflammation or pain in the testicles during your self-exam, it might also be:
- Epididymitis: Inflammation, swelling and redness of the testicles as a result of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or urinary tract infection (UTI).
- Testicular torsion: A medical emergency in which a testicle twists around the spermatic cord.
- Varicocele: Enlarged veins in the scrotum caused by faulty valves delivering blood.
- Hydrocele: Excess fluid around one or both testicles caused by an open inguinal canal, inflammation, infection or injury.
Most of these conditions are not life-threatening or dangerous and may go away on their own. But some symptoms may be similar to those of testicular cancer, so a doctor's visit is essential and should be scheduled as soon as possible.
Get into the routine of self-exams
You're not a trained professional or a urologist, but by knowing how to conduct a testicular self-exam, you can at least identify problematic situations that can put your testicles in peril. The best time to do an exam is right after you've taken a warm bath or shower, as the skin is loose and supple. Remember that you only need to do a monthly exam for it to be effective, and this is enough to put your mind at ease and your testicles in good hands.