October is the time for cooler temperatures and warmer beverages. While some parts of the country equate October with red, orange, yellow, and brown as the leaves change, the entire country equates October with the color pink. That’s right: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This highly recognizable annual campaign is designed to increase cancer awareness and remind people of all the different ways they can help promote women’s health. The campaign continues to gain momentum, and we will all undoubtedly see our social media feeds and local businesses sporting pink ribbons. The ultimate mission, though, is to provide education and support services and advocate early detection.
Women’s Health Encompasses More Than Breast Exams
Breast cancer may be one of the more visible women’s health issues, but women’s health is much more than just breast exams. Women should be getting annual screenings for more than just potential cancers. Yearly check-ups with your primary care physician and OB-GYN are just as important to women’s health as regular cancer screenings. Simply going to the doctor isn’t enough, though. When your physician asks if you have any unexplained discomfort or general concerns, it’s important to have answers ready. Vaginal and/or pelvic pain is not normal, so it shouldn’t be ignored. To normalize new or chronic pain means you’re not prioritizing your own health. Sure, it can be hard to talk about your vagina or pain down there. But they’re doctors—and your job is to tell them where and when it hurts.
Pelvic Pain & Vaginal Discomfort
Vaginal pain is not reserved for one specific kind of woman. Just like women, women’s health issues come in many varieties. For example, some suffer from dyspareunia, which is pain during sexual intercourse that is caused by a range of physical or psychological factors. That’s pretty broad. Then there’s vaginismus in which the pelvic floor muscles tighten involuntarily. Vulvodynia is an even more ambiguous but very real chronic condition that causes significant pain and discomfort. Women who’ve experienced trauma to the pelvis, either from sexual violence or childbirth can experience chronic pain, as can postmenopausal women whose natural hormone deficiencies create a less-than-ideal environment for pleasurable sex. Pelvic pain sometimes doesn’t have anything to do with sex. It can also be caused by chronic constipation or excessive exercise.
Vaginal or pelvic pain can also be an unfortunate side effect of successful cancer treatment. The high amount of energy it takes to destroy cancer cells with radiotherapy damages healthy cells in addition to the unhealthy ones. When the body tries to heal, inflammation to tissue and blood vessels commonly occurs, which creates internal scarring to otherwise healthy organs. If the ovaries are affected by such fibrosis, it affects their ability to dose out estrogen. Low estrogen means dry, painful sex. Postmenopausal women experience similar discomfort, as their bodies naturally decrease estrogen production. The vagina starts to become less elastic, thinner, and dryer. This type of atrophy can be exacerbated by the brain’s newfound aversion to sexual contact, which perpetuates a cycle of anxiety.
Physicians Recommend Vaginal Dilators
Upon clueing in your doctor on your issues, they will likely want to investigate further. It’s very possible you’ll be pointed in the direction of vaginal dilator therapy. Vaginal dilators are plastic or silicone cylinders that resemble tampons. They come in a variety of sizes and serve to stretch the vaginal tissues and pelvic floor muscles. The therapy is performed over a period of time and is sometimes deemed most effective in a clinical setting. At-home use is also often prescribed, but usually after some initial progress is made. Sometimes it’s not just the physical part that offers therapeutic pain relief; it’s also the parasympathetic nervous system that needs to learn how to trust sexual contact again. With regular use, dilators actually help the brain realize that there is nothing to fear. Insertion does not have to equal pain, and as you increase the size of the dilator without pain, you’ll soon find yourself feeling like your old self again.
Women’s health deserves more than just a seat in the back. Let this month be a reminder to ask your doctor about any new or unusual vaginal or pelvic pain. Otherwise you could continue to miss out on precious time to enjoy some of the simple things in life like sitting comfortably and having pleasurable sex. While vaginal dilators may be the answer to your women’s health concerns, it’s always best to consult your doctor before attempting any treatment.