Ladies, we have one more tool in the belt.
Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug to treat the vaginal and vulvar pain associated with loss of estrogen in older women.
That pain is called dyspareunia, and it’s caused by the changes in the vagina and genitals that occur when we lose estrogen during menopause. As we’ve said (often), our vaginal tissues become thin, dry, and fragile as our estrogen levels decline, which can make sex very uncomfortable. Dyspareunia is common, and it doesn’t get better on its own.
Now there’s a pill that you take once a day.
Osphena is called a “selective estrogen receptor modulator,” or SERM. Although it’s not a hormone, it works like one in that it affects some estrogen-sensitive tissues, like the vagina and the uterine lining (the endometrium). The vagina will thicken and become less fragile while other tissues, such as the breast, are affected very little.
In a 12-week trial of almost 2,000 women here in the US, the researchers saw a “statistically significant improvement” in the pain level of the women who took it compared with a control group.
Of course, there’s no free lunch when it comes to pharmaceuticals. Some common and less-serious side effects include hot flashes, vaginal discharge, muscle spasms, and sweating. But a few uncommon and more serious side effects include blood clots, stroke, and vaginal bleeding that can indicate cancer of the endometrium.
That’s why the drug comes with a black box warning from the FDA, and why the FDA advises taking it in the smallest amounts and for the shortest time possible.
It’s also uncertain whether the condition will reverse itself once the drug is stopped.
Despite the scary black box, I’m thinking that Osphena gives us another option. It might not be our first choice for long-term use. It still isn’t the magic bullet for all menopausal ailments.
But it might provide a little short-term boost, for example, to make a woman with severe dyspareunia more comfortable until the moisturizers or the topical estrogen kicks in. And until her renewed sex life helps rejuvenate the vagina because sex, in case you forgot, “is beneficial for maintaining vaginal health,” says Dr. David Portman, lead researcher in the Osphena trials for safety and effectiveness.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.