February 22, 2017

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Q: What’s with this period after three years of HT?

You say you’ve had a period and some breast tenderness after three years of hormone therapy (HT). I hope you’ll make an appointment with your health care provider: Any bleeding that occurs postmenopausally (after 12 months with no bleeding) is considered “abnormal uterine bleeding” and it really deserves evaluation. This is true whether or not you’re on HT.

The evaluation is usually an endometrial biopsy, a quite simple office procedure. Women on hormone therapy are at very low risk of developing uterine cancer, but we still want to make sure the proper evaluation takes place. Usually the biopsy is completely benign or normal, and we aren’t able to explain why it happened.

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.When the bleeding is accompanied by other associated symptoms, like breast soreness, it is tempting to attribute it to a “last hurrah” or one last period, but that is unlikely. Any missed doses of the HT or changes in dosing can occasionally contribute to some breakthrough bleeding. The most likely scenario is that the hormone therapy contributed to the symptoms of the breast soreness and the bleeding, but without any changes it’s hard to explain why that might have happened now, three years after menopause.

Again, evaluation usually confirms that all is normal, but it’s worth making the effort to be sure!

 

 

February 13, 2017

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What to Do When Your Partner Is Addicted to Porn

Not much is known about addiction to pornography, not the numbers of people affected; even the definition is hazy. There just isn’t a body of research surrounding the issue.

"There is a real dearth of good, evidence-based therapeutic literature," says Dr. Valerie Voon, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Cambridge in this article.

The relatively recent advent of the Internet has revolutionized the world of porn, serving up  raw, unfiltered, hard-core, and nonstop stimulation. The result is a cohort of (mostly) men who have become addicted and desensitized to the dopamine rush of a constant barrage of online porn. Occasional porn consumption is common, but therapists and doctors are seeing more relationship and sexual performance difficulties among heavy porn users—behavior that looks a lot like addiction.

Discovering that your partner uses porn addictively is a crushing, confusing experience. Women compare it to the betrayal of discovering an affair, except that the “other woman” is a computer screen that is available 24/7 and that doesn’t look or act like a normal woman.

A partner’s initial response is often denial: Is it really so bad? Doesn’t everyone view porn sometimes? Is this normal?

The morality or “normalcy” of porn use is a different conversation, but when a partner becomes secretive and withdrawn, when he can’t stop the behavior even at work or, as one woman discovered, during a weekend visit to her parents; when porn use creates difficulty in real-life sexual performance; when it causes pain and conflict, then it’s an addiction and it isn’t normal.

Porn addiction is socially anathema—people don’t talk about it or easily admit to having a problem with it. Support groups for partners of porn addicts are rare. And research-driven treatment for porn users themselves is also rare. The most common treatment is called a “reboot” in which porn users are counseled to stop masturbating to online porn until their brain chemistry and ability to engage in real-life sex is regained, which may take months.

The behavior of porn addicts is similar to other addictions. They minimize their porn consumption or outright lie about it. They may accuse the partner of causing the problem. They withdraw and hide what they’re doing. They may gaslight—a newly vogue term that refers to undermining the partner’s grasp on reality by lying, evading, bullying, and blaming.

This dynamic is devastating and toxic. Partners of porn addicts are often recognized as having symptoms of PTSD-like trauma.

The non-porn-using partner may try to control “the addict’s access to porn through anger, snooping, crying, guilt tactics, threatening, shaming and blaming the addict. This destructive behavior was once considered co-dependent, but those of us who work with partners of porn addicts now view these actions as symptoms of trauma,” writes Mari A Lee, sex addiction therapist and co-author of Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts.

As with any addiction, the path to recovery is difficult and riddled with relapse. The harrowing challenge to a partner of a porn addict is to maintain her own integrity and emotional health while offering her partner forgiveness and the space and support to manage his recovery, if he so chooses.

Women who’ve been there say:

  • This isn’t about you. Your partner’s behavior has nothing to do with how you look, how much you weigh, or your performance in bed. Don’t take the blame. “[P]orn addiction is not about [the non-addicted partner’s] worth or value, it is not even about sex; instead, porn addiction is about soothing pain,” writes Lee.
  • “You did not cause it. You cannot change it, and you cannot control it.”
  • Try not to let your partner’s addiction take over your life or consume your thoughts. Set goals. Stay active. Stay healthy.
  • Try to find support—a therapist, a group, a trusted friend.
  • Respond to your partner with as much compassion and forgiveness as you can muster without becoming sucked into the addiction.

A partner’s addiction may be one of the most painful and difficult knuckle sandwiches that life can smack you with. It attacks the very foundation of trust, security, and intimacy that a relationship is built on.

However, there is hope, both for your own healing and the recovery of your partner. “When each person makes the choice to end the destructive dance of addiction, blame, shame and hurt, and instead chooses to move toward healing and recovery – miracles can happen and relationships can heal,” writes Lee. 

February 09, 2017

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Porn Addiction: A Source of Sexual Problems

A patient came to see me a few days ago. She had been in a sexless marriage for years—and she had recently discovered at least part of the reason. Her husband was addicted to pornography.

This is more common than you think. It’s also not a simple problem.

Lots of people—men and women—consume porn at least occasionally. Estimates range from 50 to 99 percent of men and 30 to 86 percent of women—numbers that are so broad and vague as to only suggest “a lot.” Women tend to watch porn with their partner and to consume softer types—erotica might be a better term. Women usually report feeling greater intimacy with their partner after viewing porn.

Men tend to consume porn alone, and it portrays sometimes aggressive and sometimes deviant forms of sex. A heavy diet of this can cause them to withdraw from intimacy and to feel "increased secrecy, less intimacy and also more depression," says Dr. Ana Bridges, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas in this article.

Porn has been around since time immemorial. What’s changed is the amount and type of porn that’s available online all the time. We aren’t talking about the Playboy or Hustler magazines from a previous generation. This is hard-core, porn-on-steroids content served up in any flavor to satisfy the wildest imagination. These aren’t normal bodies, it’s not real sex, and it’s available any time, day or night.

Although the scientific community has been hesitant to label such consumption as an addiction, and although many people, perhaps most, view porn occasionally without guilt or moral quandary, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that a problem is brewing.

Whatever you call it—addiction or compulsion—when an activity becomes uncontrollable and consumes many hours; when it affects performance at work, compromises intimate relationships, and physical or emotional health, then it’s a problem.

Therapists and doctors are increasingly seeing patients who report less interest in sex and sometimes an inability to have sex in real life. Erectile dysfunction is showing up in greater numbers, especially in young men who began viewing porn while still in their teens.

Or, like me, healthcare practitioners are hearing from confused, distraught partners who don’t understand what’s happening to their partner and to their relationship.

The mechanism that creates the problem is only beginning to be studied and understood. Consuming porn many times a week over a period of months (or years) is a solitary, alienating, guilt-inducing pastime.  It frequently changes the way a person interacts sexually with a partner in real life—the person is often more impersonal, distant, and sometimes rough or demanding. Sometimes the person withdraws from the partner altogether.

Heavy porn viewing actually changes brain chemistry. In a small but carefully conducted study, a group of German researchers determined that high levels of porn consumption results in a shrinkage of gray matter in a specific region of the brain. Researchers were unsure whether this reduction was caused by the “wearing and downregulation of the underlying brain structure” due to hours of porn consumption or whether the subjects consumed porn because they had less gray matter in this area to begin with and needed more stimulation to experience pleasure.

Generally, however, the hypothesis is that heavy porn consumption desensitizes the viewer, so that more intense levels of consumption are required to reach the same level of satisfaction. “You need more and more stimulation as you build up this tolerance, and then comes your reality with a wife or partner, and you may not be able to perform,” said Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology at Lenox Hill Hospital in this article. “It’s a problem in the brain, not the penis.” As such, drugs for erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra, aren’t effective. The penis may engorge, but orgasm doesn’t follow.

Obviously, ongoing porn consumption is problematic for a relationship. It can persist for years, with trust and sexual intimacy almost inevitably becoming collateral damage. The situation is confusing, hurtful, and debilitating to a partner, in part because the issue is so socially unsavory and so rarely discussed.  

I’m thinking it’s time to crack open the door and begin talking about porn addiction, how to recognize it, and what a partner can do about it.

 

 

February 02, 2017

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Don’t Settle for a Sexless Marriage

Sexual partnerships are as variable as snowflakes. Each couple dances to a unique harmony. For some, sex remains a vibrant and fundamental part of the love and intimacy between them. But for many others, sex fades into a boring and infrequent routine or it just doesn’t happen at all. And that’s not a happy place to be.

Each couple dances to a unique harmony.For many couples, sex—or the lack of it—becomes the white elephant in the room. They ignore; they avoid; they work around it. But generally, it’s an underlying irritation and cause of increasing anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Whether lack of sex is the cause of these emotions or is collateral damage caused by other problems becomes hard to tease out. Just the fact that the darned elephant is sitting there on the couch takes a lot of energy to ignore.

Relationships without sex are common—it’s estimated that from 20 to 30 percent of marriages are sexless, which is roughly defined as having sex 10 times per year or less. Even though women tend to struggle more with libido during menopause, “women don’t have a corner on low libido,” says Michele Weiner-Davis, therapist and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage in this very worthwhile Ted talk.

The number of times couples “do it” per year isn’t the point. Really, who’s counting? It’s the level of contentment and connection between them that counts.

“If a couple is OK with their pattern, whether it's infrequent or not at all, there isn't a problem," says clinical sexologist Judith Steinhart in this article. “It's not a lack of sex that's the issue, it's a discordant level of desire.”

And that discordant level of desire—when one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t--can cause deep, relationship-destroying pain.

We’re hard-wired for connection. We crave intimacy and emotional safety within our committed relationships. And sex is a powerful intimacy-builder.

But when it becomes the sole task of one partner to ask for sex, and when he or she is frequently rejected, a hurtful dynamic is set in motion. More is at stake than a roll in the hay. One’s self-worth and sense of being attractive to, connected to, and cared for by a lover is on the line. In research studies, that kind of rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.

Over time, repeated rejection morphs into anger, frustration, and contempt—or withdraws into boredom. Communication and connection on other levels shut down. Intimacy flattens like stale beer. We all know couples who don’t touch or make eye contact, or share a joke.

With discordant levels of desire, the person with less need for intimacy controls the relationship, says Weiner-Davis in this article. The bargain goes like this: “I am not into sex. You are. But I don't have to care about your sexual needs. Furthermore, I expect you to be monogamous.”

Besides being unfair, the fatal flaw of this unspoken agreement is that relationships are built on mutual caretaking, and when that falters, the essential contract begins to crumble. Sex in a loving relationship is a reaffirmation of that mutual caring—a giving and receiving of pleasure, intimacy, and trust. That’s what we all deeply long for, and if it goes away, we deeply grieve its loss.

So, whether you’re the withholder or the seeker in your relationship, there’s good news. Even couples in long-term relationships can reignite the flame. “It’s never too late to have a passion-filled marriage,” say Weiner-Davis. That doesn’t necessarily mean shades of gray, sex on the kitchen table kind of passion, but it does mean a renaissance of sexy touch, playfulness, cuddling, and general “canoodling,” says Foley.

For starters:

  • Explain how you feel. Often, the partner with a lower libido doesn’t understand the hurt caused by rejection and lack of physical intimacy. Explain how much you miss the physical expression of love in your relationship. That it’s painful to feel he or she isn’t interested in being close to you. That you don’t want to settle for parallel, unconnected lives. That sex is important.
  • Just do it. If you’re the low-libido partner, sometimes, you just have to get started in order to feel desire. If your partner clearly needs a little cuddle time, seize the opportunity to please and affirm your partner, whether you feel like it or not. If you can’t get into the mood, you can touch, kiss, and pleasure your partner in other ways—masturbation or oral sex, for example.
  • Get creative. Familiarity and routine can be a serious buzz kill in a long-term relationship. Sometimes, mixing it up a little reignites the spark. Maybe recall the moves that used to turn you on or maybe take a midwinter break for a rejuvenation weekend. Be new lovers for each other.
  • Get a physical. We all slow down with age. This isn’t problematic in itself, but if the slowing is one-sided or if either or both of you want more action between the sheets, then a complete physical workup should be one of your first steps—for men and women. Sexual functioning is linked to so many physical and emotional variables—medication, stress, depression, illness—that teasing out the possible intersections is a job for the professionals. Once they’re diagnosed, sexual issues can usually be treated or improved.
  • Get counseling. Maybe you need a few sessions to jump-start communication. Maybe you need a deeper dive to unearth ingrained bad habits. Counseling, group therapy, a marriage retreat or some other reset might help address blind spots and self-defeating behavior. If your partner doesn’t want to go, you should go alone. "Counseling can help you figure out strategies to help yourself," says Sallie Foley, director of the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Michigan in this article.

Tackling a sexless marriage isn’t easy. Even if the status quo is unsatisfactory, changing it is risky and uncomfortable. If you’re continually gnawing on irritation; if you feel rejected and unattractive to your partner; if you’ve shut down and settled for boredom, it’s time to rattle that cage, express your feelings in a loving way, and actively seek out help.

 

January 30, 2017

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Q: Is my clitoris working right?

You say orgasms are new to you (congratulations!), and, having had the experience, you’re looking to  explore it further. You’re not sure your clitoris matches what you’ve read in books.

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.The external part of the clitoris is the head or glans; the shaft is deep to that. When you touch the clitoris, you’re touching the clitoral head. With arousal, there is usually minimal “engorgement” noted for women. By comparison, think of the penis, whose head doesn’t enlarge all that much when aroused. It’s the penis shaft that enlarges, and for women, the comparable clitoral shaft is internal (here’s a blog post with an illustration, which could be helpful).

A person’s size, weight, and number of pregnancies or childbirths don’t usually alter this part of our anatomy. As we age and hormone levels decrease, the clitoris does diminish in size and there can be skin conditions of the vulva that make the clitoris more “hooded.”

The most consistent, reliable way for most women to experience orgasm is direct clitoral stimulation (for others it’s vaginal at the “G spot”), and a vibrator tends to provide that for most women. But “most women” isn’t “every woman,” so there are a couple of other things you could try:

  1. A new clitoral pump, the Fiera Arouser for Her, may bring additional pleasure (and at a recently reduced price). It engorges the genitals during “before-play,” which usually brings more sensation and pleasure during intimacy. 
  2. Warming products can be helpful in the same way, providing stimulation to bring more blood supply to the area.

I wish there were a single route to experiencing orgasm--or maybe I don’t. There’s something nice about it being individual and unpredictable. Continuing the pursuit is fulfilling and, I hope, ultimately satisfying, too!

 

 

January 27, 2017

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I Will Ask My Doctor about that Embarrassing Problem

Resolution #4

For this last of our January resolutions series, we’ll break from our discussion of underappreciated body parts but remain totally in keeping with MiddlesexMD’s tradition of confronting embarrassing issues head-on and unfiltered. Specifically, those we avoid talking about with our doctors.

Admit it, most of us don’t like to discuss topics having to do with sex, elimination, mental health, gender orientation, obesity. Often these topics are surrounded by social ambivalence or downright discrimination. We want to be healthy and normal. We don’t want to have problems, and we sure don’t want to air them with a semi-stranger.

Doctors have heard it all. That's our job.The doctor/patient relationship can be clumsy, strained, uncomfortable or superficial. Some providers are simply more skilled at coaxing out and straightforwardly addressing your intimate questions. If you find that your doctor is abrupt or unapproachable, or if you just don’t have good chemistry, you ought to—and have every right to—change doctors. Along with your dentist and auto mechanic, this is one individual you have to trust.  

I want to assure you that doctors have heard it all. Not only that, we want—and need—to know what’s bothering you emotionally or physically. That’s our job, and we can’t do it effectively if you decide to soldier on. Often, that embarrassing secret can be easily treated; sometimes, it’s a symptom of something more serious that needs further testing.

Too often, however, patients wait until the “doorknob moment.” The exam is all wrapped up, and the doctor is literally almost out the door when the real question tumbles out: Oh, and I have noticed blood in my stool a few times recently; or, is it normal to have pain with sex?

If you don’t mention it, you doctor can’t address it. And if you wait until the doorknob moment, you may have to schedule a second visit so your provider can adequately assess the problem.

Here are examples of some of the questions that are either quirky or hard to bring up. Feel free to add your own in the comment section—or email me for a personal reply. While I can give you my best response, this in no way lets you off the hook from getting in-depth, personalized information from your own doctor.

  1. I’ve never had an orgasm. Is that weird? No. Female orgasm is a tricky business. Most women fake an orgasm at some point; about 5 percent of women never have one. But just because you’ve never had an orgasm doesn’t mean you never will. Here and here is some starter information. With some coaching, some understanding of your physiology (most women orgasm clitorally, not vaginally, for example), and some practice, chances are good that you’ll awaken those slumbering nerve endings.
  2. Do I look normal? “Normal” encompasses such broad and beautiful variety that there’s almost no such thing. Vaginas and labia, breasts and bellies come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colors. They aren’t often symmetric, and size and color can change with age and sexual activity.  Don’t believe me? Take a look at this art installation of real female genitalia. 
  3. Why am I growing facial hair? This is another side-effect of normal, hormonal changes during menopause. Often, facial hair becomes thicker and coarser as well. You should mention this to your doctor just to monitor the changes and rule out other causes. 
  4. Does it matter if I use drugs recreationally? Yes, it matters to your doctor. We need to know what’s going into your system, so we can correctly diagnose problems and be aware of possible interactions with other pharmaceuticals. This has nothing to do with law enforcement and everything to do with your healthcare—and sometimes even your life. We need to know about even benign recreational drug use, such as marijuana. 
  5. Sometimes I leak and sometimes I smear. Female urinary incontinence is very common. The number of people who suffer from fecal incontinence, however, is harder to estimate because, surprise!, patients are too embarrassed to talk about it, and their doctors don’t ask. If either is problematic for you, ‘fess up. Talk about it. Treatment is available.
  6. I’m postmenopausal, and I’m bleeding. Definitely an issue to discuss with your doctor. Most postmenopausal bleeding is a result of thin, dry vaginal tissue, but more serious causes have to be ruled out.
  7. Why does my vagina make a strange sound during sex? Vaginal tissue is made of pockets and folds. (That’s how it expands to accommodate an 8-pound baby!) When air gets trapped in the pockets, penetration can push it out. The sound is called queefing, and it happens to lots of women. 
  8. Am I ejaculating during sex? It’s possible. Female ejaculation is defined as fluid ejected from the urethra during climax. Colloquially, it’s called squirting. The phenomenon isn’t common but has been reported often enough that it isn’t a myth, either. Frankly, not much is known about why it happens or what the fluid is, exactly. Consider yourself special and stay tuned for more information.

Pick up your courage and a pencil and do yourself a favor: Write down all the questions, sexual, messy, and embarrassing as they may be, to ask at your next physical. You can also answer the questions in this quick and easy Menopause Map to begin framing the questions.

“In the end, we all just have to become comfortable with the fact that sex involves the genitals and the genitals are down there. It’s a big, messy thing—but it’s worth it!” says Dr. Debby Herbenick, in this article.

 

 

 

January 23, 2017

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I Will {Heart} my Heart

Resolution #3

This is the tough one, ladies, but it’s also the most important. Cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke) is the #1 killer of women today. One in 3 women die from it. By comparison, 1 in 8 women die from breast cancer.

The news gets worse: about 44 million women in the US are affected by cardiovascular disease right now. Ninety percent of us have at least one risk factor, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, or being overweight. We are less likely than men to survive our first heart attack.

Fortunately, perfection isn't required.But the really good news is that 80 percent of cardiovascular problems can be prevented by knowledge and lifestyle change, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The other bright spot is that improving heart health also improves our brain health, because good brain function relies on good cardiovascular function. And we know that as we age, we are at higher risk for various dementias.

It’s important to honestly tackle those lifestyle changes right now because as we age, our risk factors for heart disease increase: cholesterol and blood pressure tend to rise; we tend to gain weight; sleep may be more difficult. So time, very literally, is of the essence.

Unfortunately, lifestyle change of the type required for good cardiovascular health is hard. Honest, systemic lifestyle change demands consistency, and self-discipline, and this is hard. Few among us achieve perfection when it comes to an overall health care regimen.

Fortunately, perfection isn’t required. Getting started and sticking to it is.

To get started, assess your current baseline. These are the most important numbers:

  • Total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL
  • HDL (good) cholesterol 50 mg/dL or higher
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol less than 100 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides 150 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure less than 120/80 mm Hg
  • Body Mass Index less than 25 kg/m2 (Find your BMI here.)
  • Waist circumference less than 35 inches

Second: discuss your numbers with your doctor to get your marching orders: hash out what to focus on; what is possible, and how best to begin, especially regarding an exercise regimen.

And third: Get started! Every one of those important numbers measuring cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and weight can be moderated or controlled through diet and exercise. That’s it. A clean, heart-healthy diet and regular moderate activity could extend your life and help you to avoid the serious consequences of heart disease. Plus, you’ll feel better, experience less pain, and be more flexible.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

A heart-healthy diet for a woman over 50 should rely heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat and lots of fish, whole grains, and unsaturated fat, such as olive oil. Cut way back on salt, sugars of all sorts, saturated and trans-fats.

Cook your own food so you know what’s in it. Processed foods are full of sodium and unpronounceable additives. Make eating out a rare treat.

Both Weight Watchers and the Mediterranean diet get high marks from nutritionists as being heart-healthy, not too restrictive, and easy to follow—thus good candidates for a successful lifelong change.

Drink lots of water (we lose the tendency to feel thirsty as we age) and take your multi-vitamins and supplements, such as calcium and vitamin D, as advised by your doctor. Here’s a ton more diet information from the AHA’s Go Red for Women campaign.

Exercise is the second leg of cardiovascular good health. It’s hard to overestimate the benefits of regular, moderate activity—it regulates blood pressure, strengthens your heart and other muscles, increases bone density, and improves your mood.

The trick with exercise is to get started and to keep going because you will use every distraction in the book to procrastinate. It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. A brisk, 30-minute walk 5 times a week—that’s all! Start with 10 minutes if you’ve been sedentary, but keep challenging yourself.

If you live in an area with cold winters, you can walk in the mall or do cardio workouts at home with some of the very good fitness videos available online. Here’s a beginner workout from the inimitable Jane Fonda, who imparts salty health advice along with encouragement. Here’s a no-nonsense and very comprehensive set of workout programs to explore once you’ve built up some stamina. Stick with low-impact workouts, warm up thoroughly, and don’t overdo. Steady, consistent progress is better—and safer—than a jackrabbit start.

Finally, stop smoking. Not negotiable. Smoking adds incredible risk to your health. Do whatever it takes to eliminate nicotine from your life.

It’s January. This is a good time to seriously take charge of your health. Imagine how incredible you'll feel after spending the entire year working out and eating clean. Imagine actually witnessing the change in those numbers. Buckle up for a life-changing year.

 

 

 

January 17, 2017

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I Will Observe Cervical Health Awareness Month

Resolution #2

The stars have aligned for our January resolutions series. Not only is January designated as Cervical Health Awareness Month, but I’d say that the cervix counts as an “often neglected body part” related to our sexual health or well-being, which was the criterion for this January resolutions series.

The good news about the cervix is that there really isn’t anything you have to do to improve its function—no exercise, no diet, no special creams or lotions. Basically, it’s four centimeters of tough muscle between the vagina and the uterus. It keeps a baby in safely tucked inside the uterus and then dilates when it’s time for the baby to be born. That dilation is what labor is all about, as though you could ever forget. It really has no sexual function, contrary to previous belief.

The deal with the cervix—and why we have this special month devoted to it—is that you can almost ignore it if it’s healthy, but if it acts up, as with cervical cancer, then you have a problem, Houston.

And that’s why you can’t completely ignore it. So let’s give the lowly cervix a little blog luv.

Times have changed with the sexual revolution and advent of cheap, easy, and effective birth control. There’s a whole lot more sex happening with more partners, for one thing. And with that has come a lot more sexually transmitted diseases. We talked about that at length, beginning here, but as it relates to the cervix, here’s the rub.

The precursor for cervical cancer is what we call SIL (squamous intraepithelial) change (or dysplasia in physicians’ lingo). That change is nearly always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV; there are rare occasions where cervical cancer isn’t HPV related), and HPV is pretty much ubiquitous among sexually active people (80 percent). Plus, it’s a virus, so once you have it, there’s no cure. Usually that’s no problem. In 70 to 90 percent of cases, a healthy immune system clears it up within two years—kind of like the common cold.

But as we know, viruses are wily, shape-shifting critters. There are about 100 strains of HPV, only a few of which are considered high risk for cervical cancer. About 12,000 women get cervical cancer every year in the US, and one-third of them die. This isn’t a huge number, but the tragic thing about cervical cancer is no one should die from it because cervical cancer is extremely easy to detect and treat. In women older than 65 with cervical cancer, 42 percent had never been screened.

Screening guidelines and testing procedures have changed in recent years, however, so it’s no wonder if you’re confused about what to do and how often to do it. There is now a test for HPV, which is recommended for any woman over 30. There is also the tried-and-true Pap test that tests the cervix for precancerous cellular change, or dysplasia. This test is recommended to start at age 21.

A woman with a history of negative results and no other complications only needs a Pap test every three years. Combined with a negative HPV test, the wait can be five years.

Obviously, if your cervix was removed during a hysterectomy (and you DO know whether or not it was removed, don’t you?), and if you don’t have a history of cancer or dysplasia, you are done with Pap tests forever. Even if your cervix is intact, until recently the guidelines advised that women over 65 with no history of positive Pap results no longer need screenings.

All that may be changing.

In a 2013 study of women between 35 and 60 found that some women who had been monogamous or celibate for decades began testing positive for HPV. The results suggested that these women had been carrying latent and undetectable levels of the HPV virus from sexual encounters in their youth that had spontaneously reactivated during menopause. This is akin to a childhood case of chicken pox returning later in life as shingles.

“As long as you are controlling these infections, your immediate risk of [cancer] is going to be low,” molecular biologist Dr. Patti Gravitt explains in this article from Johns Hopkins. “But if menopause, or just getting old, increases HPV reactivation, then we need to look at what this means for screening these older women who came of age during the sexual revolution and are much more likely to reach menopause with latent HPV than the postmenopausal women we have screened in the past.”

In the face of this surprising finding, the North America Menopause Society now recommends that “all women who have had multiple partners should not stray too far from their Pap smear or HPV test at menopause until we know more about the increased risk of HPV flare up at menopause.” 

Even women who have had their cervix removed should be aware that rarely HPV also causes vaginal and vulvar cancers. So more than ever it pays to be aware of your cervical health—and your HPV status. Being postmenopausal doesn’t give us a pass anymore.

 

 

January 13, 2017

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Q: Can I enjoy intercourse again without expensive prescriptions?

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.You say you’re hoping to enjoy intercourse again after a five-year hiatus, but that you experienced some discomfort with your last gynecological exam. The prescriptions offered to you (which I assume were localized estrogen) are not in your budget, so you’re wondering about other options.

A vaginal moisturizer, used regularly, can help you regain some tissue elasticity. Any of the moisturizers we offer might be an option for you; they’re intended to be used regularly, from daily to several times a week.

Along with thinner and fragile tissues, in menopause, without estrogen and without sexual activity, the vagina will become more narrow and shortened. You may need the gentle stretching of dilators to help restore vaginal capacity.

I’m hopeful that, with some effort and regular attention, you can restore vaginal health to resume pleasurable intercourse!

January 09, 2017

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I Will Improve My Pelvic Floor

New Year Resolution #1

Resolutions are easy to make and hard to keep (most people don’t). However, as we mentioned before, certain psychological tricks can increase your chances for success, and sheer persistence is one of them.

In the spirit of successful resolutions, I propose devoting January (yes, the whole month) to specific health-related resolutions. In fact, each one focuses on an often neglected body part that is critical to good sex and/or well-being.

First up? The pelvic floor.

You might not think much about your pelvic floor, but it affects you every single day. That surprising leakage after your firstborn child? That need to pee every half hour now that you’re post-menopausal? The more frequent UTIs? The slack “vaginal embrace” during sex? That really annoying pelvic organ prolapse that’s causing all manner of issues?

Strengthen your floorAll these annoyances (and more) are related to the muscles in your pelvic floor. That’s why we write about pelvic floor health and doing kegels so much on MiddlesexMD. That’s why a healthy pelvic floor is part of our recipe. That’s why we have products to help you do those kegels right.  It’s all because a healthy pelvic floor is so darned critical to our quality of life, especially as we get older and lose muscle tone and elasticity.

While many lifestyle improvements—losing weight, not smoking—will coincidentally improve the pelvic floor, they aren’t the stuff of resolutions that are easy to keep. Kegels, on the other hand, are specific, countable, time-limited, and realistic—all the elements of a solid, successful program.

And now, they can be fun! (Another element of success.)

A new smartphone app combined with a high-tech vaginal tool was recently launched on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo. Perifit is an exercise tracker/trainer for your pelvic floor. It’s comprised of a flexible, bulbous, silicone tool that goes in your vagina and sends low-energy Bluetooth signals to an app that is downloaded onto your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

For resolution success, make it specific.If you’re successfully tightening your pelvic floor, a butterfly stays afloat on your device. The tighter you squeeze, the higher it flies. Not only will you know if you’re tightening correctly, but the tool also measures both deep and shallow muscles contractions as well as their effectiveness against four parameters: force, endurance, reflex, and agility. You also get to choose among several training programs targeted toward specific issues, such as different types of incontinence or post-childbirth trauma.

The program isn’t cheap, and it’s also new, but it’s a hugely fun concept and casts the notion of doing kegels in a refreshingly different light. If nothing else, watch the video with the adorable baby and draw comfort from the fact that women of all ages are working on their pelvic floor.

Like any workout, developing pelvic floor muscle takes time and consistency. Whether your success with this program depends on a butterfly video or vaginal weights or your own self-discipline, you have choices among several tools, one of which might align well with your personality.    

The last element to a successful resolution is persistence. Of course you’ll forget or skip days or get lazy. The secret is to pick up where you left off and keep on going. Set up a realistic, measurable program. Healthline recommends holding a kegel for a 3 seconds; releasing for 3 seconds and working up to a 10-second hold.  Three sets of 10 ten-second reps a day is a good goal.

Developing pelvic floor strength isn’t as obvious or satisfying as working on tanktop arms or a bikini belly (if that’s even possible anymore), but it is arguably more important. Avoiding or reducing incontinence, UTIs, and pelvic organ prolapse while increasing sensation and vaginal strength for better sex is nothing to sneeze at.

 

 

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