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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.