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Low Dose Estrogen and Vaginal Microbiomes in Atrophic Vaginitis

Vaginal wall thinning associated with menopausal changes can cause vaginal burning and pain, limitations in sexual function, and vaginal redness or even changes in discharge. Because these symptoms can mimic many other conditions such as pelvic floor muscle dysfunction or an infection, it is necessary for the pelvic rehabilitation therapist to be alert to identifying vaginal atrophy as an issue to rule out so that patients can access appropriate medical care when needed.

Vaginal Canal Normal vs. MenopauseAtrophic vaginitis (AV) is a condition of the vaginal walls associated with tissue thinning, discomfort, and inflammation. The tissue changes often extend into the vulvar area as well. Atrophic vaginitis may also be called vaginal atrophy, vulvovaginal atrophy, urogenital atrophy, or genitourinary syndrome of menopause. Although we tend to associate menopause with women who are in their 40’s or 50’s, any woman who has stopped having her menstrual cycles or who has had a significant reduction in her cycles may be at risk for vaginal atrophy. Any woman who has had a hysterectomy may also be at risk of this thinning of the vaginal walls. Common symptoms of vaginal wall thinning include vaginal dryness, tissue irritation, redness, itching, and a “burning” pain. Interruption in sleep, limitations in activities of daily living, and changes in mood and temperament have also been reported.

One common pharmacological intervention for vaginal and vulvar atrophy is the topical application of hormone creams such as estrogen. A recent study examined the effects of low dose estrogen therapy on bacteria that populates the vaginal walls.Shen et al., 2016 This bacteria may be causal or correlated to vaginal health, and also appears related to estrogen levels. Sixty women diagnosed with atrophic vaginitis were treated with low dose estrogen therapy and followed for four weeks to assess the vaginal microbiotia via mid-vaginal swabs. Following are highlights from the linked study’s findings,

  • Prior to treatment, in symptomatic postmenopausal women the Lactobacilli species were less abundant and made up 11.2% of the community, while in asymptomatic women, the communities were more than 50% lactobacilli
  • Gardnerella was more abundant than Lactobacillus in women with atrophic vaginitis
  • Overall diversity of bacterial communities between healthy women and those with atrophic vaginitis was not significantly different
  • In response to treatment with estrogen, women with AV reported improved symptoms and decreased vaginal pH
  • Serum estradiol improved on average from approximately 42 pmol/L to 168 pmol/L by week 2, with little change from week 2 to week 4
  • Lactobacillus count was negatively correlated with symptoms (i.e., more Lactobacillis = less symptoms) and Gardnerella and Atopobium counts were positively correlated with symptoms
  • There were variations noted in how each woman’s vaginal bacterial communities responded to the estrogen therapy in that some women had a dominance of other bacteria after 4 weeks even though their symptoms decreased

In conclusion, the authors stated that “…a Lactobacillus-dominated vaginal community may be considered as one of the signs of AV treatment success…” along with reduced symptoms and increased serum estradiol levels. Prior studies have recognized barriers to treatment that include lack of patient knowledge of vulvar and vaginal atrophy, failure to discuss associated symptoms with physicians, concerns about safety of treatments or poor symptom relief with prescribed interventions.Kingsburg et al., 2013 This leaves the pelvic rehabilitation provider in a excellent role of educating women in the signs and symptoms of atrophic vaginitis, observing the tissues for changes, and communicating with referring providers and prescribers if a concern is noted. Furthermore, failure to recognize the potential for vaginal atrophy and treating these tissues with manual therapy or exercise may injure or exacerbate the problem.

Interested in learning more? Keep an eye out for a Menopause Rehabilitation and Symptom Management course with Michelle Lyons!


Changes in the Vagina and Vulva. Retrieved June 27, 2016 from http://www.menopause.org/for-women/sexual-health-menopause-online/changes-at-midlife/changes-in-the-vagina-and-vulva
Kingsberg, S. A., Wysocki, S., Magnus, L., & Krychman, M. L. (2013). Vulvar and vaginal atrophy in postmenopausal women: findings from the REVIVE (REal Women's VIews of Treatment Options for Menopausal Vaginal ChangEs) survey. The journal of sexual medicine, 10(7), 1790-1799. 
Shen, J., Song, N., Williams, C. J., Brown, C. J., Yan, Z., Xu, C., & Forney, L. J. (2016). Effects of low dose estrogen therapy on the vaginal microbiomes of women with atrophic vaginitis. Scientific reports, 6.
Vaginal Atrophy. Retrieved June 27, 2016 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vaginal-atrophy/home/ovc-20200167

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