I recently assisted at a Pelvic Floor Level 2B course which has been updated with recent research, new sections, and less repetition from Pelvic Floor Level 1. In the course they mentioned this article which sparked a lively discussion and I had to learn more. It is rare to see a study with a large number of participants in pelvic health and especially with a vaginismus diagnosis.
Vaginismus is defined as a genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder along with dyspareunia under the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; Fifth Edition) in which penetration is often impossible due to pain and fear. Vaginismus is both a physical and psychological disorder as it exhibits both muscle spasms and fear/anxiety of penetration. Symptoms vary by severity. Common presentation is an inability or discomfort to insert/remove a tampon, pain with penetration, and complaints of “hitting a wall” in attempted penetration; and inability to participate in gynecological exams.
The authors of this study evaluated the severity of vaginismus. The penetrative history was used in addition to presentation at pelvic exam, and then given a level. There are 2 grading systems, Lamont and Pacik, that indicate the level of fear and anxiety about being touched. They found that those with severe vaginismus were Lamont levels 3 and 4, and Pacik level 5. For example, a Pacik Level 5 includes Lamont grade 4 “generalized retreat: buttocks lift up; thighs close, patient retreats” plus a visceral reaction such as “palpitations, hyperventilation, sweating, severe trembling, uncontrollable shaking, screaming, hysteria, wanting to jump off the table, a feeling of going unconscious, nausea, vomiting and even a desire to attack the doctor”.
241 patients participated in this study, with a mean duration of 7.8 years. 70% of participants were a Lamont level 4 or Pacik level 5 at baseline. The authors looked at previous treatments tried and coping strategies; 74% had tried lube, 73% had tried dilators, 50% had tried Kegels, 28% had tried physical therapy, 3% had tried a surgical vestibulectomy. The full table 2 is in the article. Most participants had a mean of at least 4 failed treatments.
The aim was to help these women to achieve pain free intercourse after treatment. In order to tolerate the treatment, many were sedated with midazolam before the Q-tip test, and more sedation given as needed. The treatment lasted for about 30 minutes and consisted of:
If the patient consented, her partner could be present during the procedure and was allowed to palpate the level of spasm with gloved digit and was educated on dilator insertion. The authors noted that many partners had a ‘profound’ experience.
A nurse worked with the couple for about two hours in the recovery room to help them be more comfortable moving the dilator in and out with minimal-to-no pain as the numbing agent lasts 6-8 hours. Three participants were treated each time and consented to meet each other. Patients were discharged with #4 dilator in place and asked to keep in until the next day. They were given Ibuprofen and sleeping aids as needed.
Participants return with partners and progress up to larger sizes (#5 and #6). They participate in group counseling with the primary researcher Dr. Pacik. This lasted about 5 hours; and consisted of education of dilator progression, returning to intercourse and lubricants. If participants wished to have private counseling instead that was granted. Many exchanged contact information. They were encouraged to continue seeing their healthcare clinicians as indicated; sex therapists, physical therapists, psychologists.
- 2 hours of dilator per day. Either in 1 sitting or 1 hour of dilator work x2 per day
- Progress to bigger sizes until #5 or #6 is comfortable
- 1 hour of dilator use per day and continue toward larger sizes
- 15-30 minutes of dilator use per day
- 10-15 minutes of dilator use per day or every other day
During the counseling session post-procedure, the recommendations for returning to intercourse included:
71% of participants achieved pain-free coitus 5 weeks after the procedure. 2.5% could not achieve coitus within one-year period although they could use #5 or #6 dilators. The participants were given a validated outcome tool, the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI), before and after the procedure and at 1-month, 3-months, 6-months, and 1-year; with significant improvement at each interval. The patients were followed for one year, and often remained in contact with the authors for much longer ranging from 16-months to 9-years.
The authors propose that use of dilators at the time of botox and post procedure counseling and support help participants ‘break through’, whereas previous treatment may not be as multidimensional and limit efficacy. Botox lasts 2-4 months and allowed for dilation progression.
Initially after reading this article the treatment seemed a little drastic to me, but then I considered the women with this level of vaginismus are often not coming into my clinic. They may need this level of structure, consistently, and multidimensional treatment as half measures have failed them. I am so glad they were persistent and found the help they needed.
Pacik, P., Geletta, S. Vaginismus Treatment: Clinical Trials Follow Up 241 Patients. Sex Med 2017;5:e114-e123
My job as a pelvic floor therapist is rewarding and challenging in so many ways. I have to say that one of my favorite "job duties" is differential diagnosis. Some days I feel like a detective, hunting down and piecing together important clues that join like the pieces of a puzzle and reveal the mystery of the root of a particular patient's problem. When I can accurately pinpoint the cause of someone's pain, then I can both offer hope and plan a road to healing.
Recently a lovely young woman came into my office with the diagnosis of dyspareunia. As you may know dyspareunia means painful penetration and is somewhat akin to getting a script that says "lower back pain." As a therapist you still have to use your skills to determine the cause of the pain and develop an appropriate treatment plan.
My patient relayed that she was 6 months post partum with her first child. She was nursing. Her labor and delivery were unremarkable but she tore a bit during the delivery. She had tried to have intercourse with her husband a few times. It was painful and she thought she needed more time to heal but the pain was not changing. She was a 0 on the Marinoff scare. She was convinced that her scar was restricted. "Oh Goodie," I thought. "I love working with scars!" But I said to her, "Well, we will certainly check your scar mobility but we will also look at the nerves and muscles and skin in that area and test each as a potential pain source, while also completing a musculoskeletal assessment of the rest of you."
Her "external" exam was unremarkable except for adductor and abdominal muscle overactivity. Her internal exam actually revealed excellent scar healing and mobility. There was significant erythemia around the vestibule and a cotton swab test was positive for pain in several areas. There was also significant muscle overactivity in the bulbospongiosis, urethrovaginal sphincter and pubococcygeus muscles. Also her vaginal pH was a 7 (it should normally be a 4, this could indicate low vaginal estrogen). I gave her the diagnosis of provoked vestibulodynia with vaginismus. Her scar was not the problem after all.
Initially for homework she removed all vulvar irritants, talked to her doctor about trying a small amount of vaginal estrogen cream, and worked on awareness of her tendency to clench her abdominal, adductor, and pelvic floor muscles followed by focused relaxation and deep breathing. In the clinic I performed biofeedback for down training, manual therapy to the involved muscles, and instructed her in a dilator program for home. This particular patient did beautifully and her symptoms resolved quite quickly. She sent me a very satisfied email from a weekend holiday with her husband and daughter.
Although this case was fairly straightforward, it is a great example of how differential diagnosis is imperative to deciding and implementing an effective treatment plan for our patients. In Herman & Wallace courses you will gain confidence in your evaluation skills and learn evidence based treatment processes that will enable you to be more confident in your care of both straightforward and complex pelvic pain cases. Hope to see you in class!
In case you’ve been under a rock (or maybe studying for the Pelvic Rehabilitation Provider Certification (PRPC) exam, the latest Netflix series starring Maria Bamford is out, and it is, as the kids say, amazeballs. We have Maria Bamford and team, and Lady Dynamite, to thank for getting the term vaginismus out in the public as the title of Season 1, Episode 8. The episode is named “A Vaginismus Miracle.” In this episode Maria is answering the question of when she last had sex. She answers that is was a year ago, which reminds her that the annual date of "Vaginismus" must be coming up. Maria further explains that she must have sex once per year because then everything is good "under the hood", and if she doesn't have sex once a year, her "vagina could close up." It's a nail biter of an episode as Maria's assistant has messed up the schedule, and Maria finds out that "Vaginismus" is that very night, and she must find a partner before midnight.
As a pelvic health provider, I knew that neither myself nor my colleagues would be able to sit back and worry about Maria suffering through another year with “Vaginismus” on her calendar, a looming deadline when we all know that with a little bit of rehabilitation, the issue could be much, much better, or maybe resolved altogether. The episode inspired me to write an open letter to Maria. Feel free to share and tag your friends who you think would love to watch a smart, funny show that puts real life issues including mental health in the spotlight.
Dear Lady Dynamite,
I recently saw your Netflix show and I have to say that it is brilliant. I love how you weave humor, the messiness of life, and important topics into an unpredictable series of events. You are clearly one smart cookie, but I’m not convinced that your new agent, Karen Grisham, is such a great influence on you (or anyone for that matter).
I wanted to reach out and let you know that, as a pelvic rehabilitation therapist and faculty member at the Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, I really appreciate that you brought the term vaginismus into the big time. So many women suffer needlessly because there is so much that pelvic rehab can do for women like you! It does seem that you have figured out a system that works for you, but what if things hadn’t worked out with Scott that night? Hanging out in a bar hoping that you can find someone to hook up with is just so 80’s. Your condition of vaginismus, a tightening of the muscles around your Lady Dynamite parts, does often cause pain with sex, and that’s called dyspareunia. This is a condition that we pelvic rehab specialists treat every day with a heck of a lot of success. Your new boyfriend Scott (he is still your boyfriend after Thanksgiving and all, right?) could even help you overcome some tenderness and tightness by learning to help you release your vaginal muscle tension. Now if that doesn’t sound like great fodder for some stand-up I don’t know what does!
It’s hard to know sometimes why vaginismus starts, maybe it was the years of freezing temperatures in Duluth that led to your tight muscles, or sliding down Chester Bowl on the ice. Maybe it was spending too much time sitting in a wheelchair while medicated, or caused by medication itself (that happens too- even birth control pills can cause pelvic pain!) My point is, there’s no need to put so much pressure on yourself and have this horrible deadline of “vaginismus” hanging over your head when you can see a kind, smart health care provider about the issue. If you, dear Lady Dynamite, need a referral for a great pelvic rehab therapist in your neighborhood, let us know! We train hundreds of therapists every year, and can help you find the perfect fit (pun intended!) Ha! (We know you can handle a little “adult humor.”) Wishing you all the best, and thanks again for talking about your vagina!
Yours in Pelvic Health,
P.S. Good luck with the Pussy Noodles representation!
P.P.S Go ‘Toppers!
P.P.P.S Can’t wait for Season 2!
P.P.P.P.S And if you see Mark McGrath around, say “hi” for me!
So, dear readers, if you would like to enjoy a smart and really funny show, check out Lady Dynamite. And if you want to learn more about vaginismus, Herman & Wallace offers several courses which would be up your alley. Consider joining faculty member Dee Hartmann, PT, DPT at Vulvodynia: Assessment and Treatment - Denver, CO this October 15-16.
Brady, P. & Hurwitz, M. (Creators). (2016). Lady Dynamite: Season 1, Episode 8. Retrieved from http://netflix.com
After menopause, more than half of women may have vulvovaginal symptoms that can impact their lifestyle, emotional well being and sexual health. What's more, the symptoms tend to co-exist with issues such as prolapse, urinary and/or bowel problems. But unfortunately many women aren't getting the help they need, despite a growing body of evidence that skilled pelvic rehab interventions are effective in the management of bladder/bowel dysfunctions, POP, sexual health issues and pelvic pain.
Vaginal dryness, hot flashes, night sweats, disrupted sleep, and weight gain have been listed as the top five symptoms experienced by postmenopausal women in North America and Europe, according to a study by Minkin et al 2015, and they also concluded ‘The impact of postmenopausal symptoms on relationships is greater in women from countries where symptoms are more prevalent.’ Between 17% and 45% of postmenopausal women say they find sex painful, a condition referred to medically as dyspareunia. Vaginal thinning and dryness are the most common cause of dyspareunia in women over age 50. However pain during sex can also result from vulvodynia (chronic pain in the vulva, or external genitals) and a number of other causes not specifically associated with menopause or aging, particularly orthopaedic dysfunction, which the pelvic physical therapist is in an ideal position to screen for.
According to the North America Menopause Society, ‘…beyond the immediate effects of the pain itself, pain during sex (or simply fear or anticipation of pain during sex) can trigger performance anxiety or future arousal problems in some women. Worry over whether pain will come back can diminish lubrication or cause involuntary—and painful—tightening of the vaginal muscles, called vaginismus. The result can be a vicious circle, again highlighting how intertwined sexual problems can become.’
The research has demonstrated that the optimal strategy for post-menopausal stress incontinence is a combination of local hormonal treatment and pelvic floor muscle training – the strategy of combining the two approaches has been shown to be superior to either approach used individually (Castellani et al 2015, Capobianco et al 2012) and similar conclusions can be drawn for promoting sexual health peri- and post-menopausally.
The pelvic rehab specialist may be called upon to screen for orthopaedic dysfunction in the spine, hips or pelvis, to discuss sexual ergonomics such as positioning or the use of lubricant as well as providing information and education about sexual health before, during and after menopause.
To learn more about sexual health and pelvic floor function/dysfunction at menopause, join me in Atlanta in March for Menopause: A Rehab Approach.
Prevalence of postmenopausal symptoms in North America and Europe, Minkin, Mary Jane MD, NCMP1; Reiter, Suzanne RNC, NP, MM, MSN2; Maamari, Ricardo MD, NCMP3, Menopause:November 2015 - Volume 22 - Issue 11 - p 1231–1238
Low-Dose Intravaginal Estriol and Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation in Post-Menopausal Stress Urinary Incontinence, Castellani D. · Saldutto P. · Galica V. · Pace G. · Biferi D. · Paradiso Galatioto G. · Vicentini C., Urol Int 2015;95:417-421