A burning sensation in the vaginal and vulvar area can be a symptom of vulvovaginal atrophy, which occurs as estrogen levels decline. Premarin cream or other localized estrogen can reverse those atrophic changes; it typically takes weeks of use for full effect.
If the burning sensation is in or extends further back, toward or including the buttocks, it's likely not vulvovaginal atrophy. It could be, instead, a nerve condition. Shingles, unfortunately, can happen in this area; there are other pelvic floor conditions—like scarring or injury—that can affect nerves. A careful pelvic exam can help to determine exactly what's happening.
I encourage you to talk to your health care provider—and again, if you're not seeing improvement!
Most women have very normal sexual function without a cervix. I have seen reports that suggest an issue, but in 24 years of practice, I can't recall a single woman who was impaired by the absence of her cervix.
There are complications that result if the cervix is left after a hysterectomy, including abnormal pap smears and continued bleeding. If there is any remaining endometrium (the membrane lining of the uterus) and you consider hormone therapy in menopause, you will need progesterone as well as estrogen. I've seen women less fond of progesterone than estrogen.
Whether you're able to keep ovaries in a hysterectomy is a bigger issue to sexuality—and in fact overall health—for women. Even after menopause, the ovaries continue to produce hormones. Those hormones not only mitigate some of the effects of menopause, but they also promote bone and heart health. There are times when it's appropriate to remove the ovaries as part of a hysterectomy, but the decision needs to be made based on each woman's health and history.
Glad you're thinking about your continued sexual health, and good luck with your recovery!
Yeah, I know. You’ve been doing the contraception shuffle for, oh, decades now. Isn’t it “safe” yet? After all, you’re past 40. Maybe you’ve even missed a couple periods.
Not so fast.
You’re in the midst of a very hazardous crossing—those uncertain years between fertility and menopause during which you are less likely to get pregnant, but, make no mistake, you still can!
While women are indeed less fertile after 40, they absolutely can get pregnant. In fact, women can conceive even during perimenopause, when the menstrual cycle is beginning to become irregular.
For some reason, however, women seem to become more casual as they near the goalposts. How else to account for the fact that women over 40 are the least likely to use birth control of any age group, and that their abortion rates are as high those of adolescents, according to a 2008 USA Today article.
In Great Britain, women in their 40s are now called “the Sex and the City generation,” and they, too, have grown careless. In the UK, abortions within the over-40 age group have risen by one-third in the past decade. In the US, 38 percent of pregnancies in women age 40 and older are unplanned. Of those, 56 percent end in abortion, according to this article in HealthyWomen.org.
By the time they reach 40, women are generally old hands at birth control. But at this point in life some reevaluation may be in order. Levels of fertility are decreasing, and hormonal levels are (or soon will be) in flux. Some women may not want to have children; others may want to keep the option open. In any case, an unplanned surprise complicates life really fast.
This is a good time for a conversation about birth control with your healthcare provider, and you may have to initiate it. While you have more options than ever, the best one for you might be different than what worked for you in your 20s.
And just so you know, current guidelines advise that you remain on birth control until one year after your last period, the official definition of menopause. Complicating the picture is the fact that with hormonal forms of birth control, such as the pill, your cycles may be irregular or may stop completely, which masks the onset of menopause. And the withdrawal bleed during the week off the pill isn’t considered a true period.
Birth control after 40 falls into several categories: permanent, long-term or short, hormonal or barrier method. They vary in levels of effectiveness and in the side effects you may experience. And remember that condoms are the only type of birth control that protects against sexually transmitted infections.
Probably your most immediate decision is whether to end childbearing permanently. Tubal ligation is a laparoscopic procedure that happens under general anesthetic in a hospital. There’s also a new, non-surgical option that a doctor can do with a local anesthetic right in the office. Or, of course, your partner could have permanent sterilization as an outpatient office procedure.
Hormonal types of birth control are very effective, but can have both side effects (bloating, risk of stroke for some women) as well as protective benefits (against bone loss and some forms of cancer, for example). It is very important to carefully review your health history with your health care provider to select the best option for you.
Short-term hormonal options include
Your choice of birth control at this point should be informed and careful. You need a plan to carry you through menopause, and you need to begin the dialog with your healthcare provider.
Since the consequences of ignoring the issue are so life-changing, this conversation ought to begin now!
Remember oxytocin? It's a hormone that facilitated the let-down of milk when you were nursing, and it's released with nipple stimulation. Oxytocin also stimulates contractions for the uterus (which is why any of you who had labor induced might recognize oxytocin by another name: pitocin). Outside of childbearing, oxytocin works with other sex hormones to facilitate orgasm and increase the intensity of pelvic floor muscles. Oxytocin levels have also been noted to fluctuate throughout menstrual cycles, correlating with lubrication.
This is a hormone that has lots of favorable effects on sex! There has been research in using it to enhance sexual function, but there's not a product readily available yet. Stay tuned!
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.
I was sitting in a tiny hut in Mexico talking with a dignified older gentleman. Outside the ramshackle house, the sun shone on the empty desert. The ocean lapped the nearby shore. There was no traffic, no noise, no shops, no phones.
“The Americans, the Germans, and the Japanese are the hardest-working people in the world,” the man said.
First, I was startled that someone in this very remote place would be so astute. Then I wondered: Is this a good thing?
With all our mobile toys, we don’t ever have to stop working in America. We can be connected 24/7. Maybe we can squeeze in a few extra obligations after-hours. Or, we might be caring for parents and children, and sometimes spouses and grandchildren. Even if we’re retired, we’re programmed to run hard and fast.
But look what it’s doing to us. We’re stressed; we’re overweight; and we’re dog-tired.
Sex life? What sex life?
Ian Kerner, a well-known sex therapist, cites a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation in which one-quarter of American couples say they’re often too tired for sex.
Mary Jo Rapini, one of our medical advisors, recalls encouraging a couple to take time for a romantic getaway. “Oh no, who’ll plan that for us?” they asked. Well, “usually the couple enjoys planning these things together,” she said.
“We don’t have the energy,” they responded.
Think of sex as the canary in the coal mine. It’s one of the first things to go when life gets out of whack. But if you ignore that quiet little loss, pretty soon the bigger stuff suffers, like good health and relationships.
If sex is just another obligation, or you’re too tired to even think about it, you need a life/work balance adjustment. If you don’t have some other physical or psychological problem, such as a thyroid condition, chronic fatigue syndrome, serious relationship issues, or hormonal imbalance, you shouldn’t be too tired for sex.
So, if stress, overwork, overcommitment, and the general pace of life, has killed your libido, consider this:
Allow time for sleep. Right now. Nothing else matters if you’re chronically sleep-deprived. Re-assess your involvements. Try to delegate tasks. Cut back on work. (Doctor’s orders.)
“A good night's sleep every night—more so than exercise and a healthy diet—keeps our sexual engines humming,” says Barry McCarthy, PhD, a Washington, D.C., sex therapist.
Give yourself an hour to unwind before going to bed in the evening. Turn off the TV and all the other screens. “It’s terrible to have a television in your bedroom, which should just be for intimacy and sleep,” says sex therapist Sherri Winston.
Spend that time relaxing with a book. Share a cup of herbal tea. Cuddle with your honey. Take a bath.
Exercise. Regular, moderate exercise is part of the work/life balance thing. Can you walk 30 minutes a day? Maybe with your partner? Can you find a gentle workout video? (My favorite now is hot yoga, but I have friends who spend 20 minutes a day with our old pal Jane Fonda.)
Exercise makes you feel better. It helps you lose weight.
And guess what? It helps you sleep better.
De-stress. Yeah, I know this sounds impossible. But you have a choice: You can continue to worship at the altar of overcommitment, at which you will offer up your health, your intimate relationships, and your quality of life.
Or you can bring your life into a healthy balance, and probably live longer—and have a lot more satisfying sex.
Need more persuading? Stress releases cortisol, a hormone that decreases testosterone, of which we women have precious little in the first place. Thus, stress directly hammers our sex drive even before the sleep-deprivation sets in.
Follow your rhythms. If you’re exhausted at night, why not have a little afternoon delight? Or maybe sex in the morning? Testosterone levels naturally rise a little then, so that might be the opportune moment to turn up the heat. Caress and cuddle at night and save the sizzle for the morning.
Just do it. You know how you may not be in the mood, but a little nibble on the ear, a little stroke on the thigh… and, well,… maybe…
Libido is like a puppy. Give it some loving, and it will follow you home. And sex begets more sex. You have to do it to want it.
When I recall the tranquility I felt in that simple hut in Mexico, I wonder if we somehow took a detour on the road to the good life. Maybe we can learn something about simplifying, cutting back, enjoying the little things, and loving each other from people who don’t have many possessions, but who probably sleep very well at night.
Estrace is a bio-identical form of estradiol, a plant-based version of the same estrogen made by our ovaries. It comes in two forms—oral (systemic) and vaginal (localized). I use very little oral estrogen in my practice, because we've learned that transdermal estrogen (delivered by patch, gel, or spray or other forms that deliver it through the skin) is safer than oral. Because it's not metabolized by the liver, it doesn't carry the same risk of thrombosis.
Vaginal Estrace is great from a therapeutic perspective—that is, it's very effective for treating vaginal atrophy. Because it's a cream, though, many of my patients don't love it: Some find creams messy to apply. It's important to find a form of localized hormones that each patient will actually use!
The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) has just published its seventh position statement about hormone therapy in the ten years since the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) linked a whole bunch of unpleasant side effects, notably breast cancer, to hormone replacement therapy.
Before that groundbreaking study, estrogen was the wonder drug that alleviated menopausal symptoms, such as night sweats and hot flashes, and kept our sexual parts juicy. Once a woman reached “that age,” hormone replacement began.
The WHI study was like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater—everyone ran for the exit. From the fountain of youth, estrogen therapy became the disinherited stepchild, suddenly viewed with anxiety and suspicion.
But with ongoing research over the past decade, the effect of hormones is understood better, and the role of hormone therapy is more refined, nuanced—and safer.
Thus the need for all those updates. “In reviewing the recent scientific publications, NAMS determined that there are enough differences now between the effects of combined estrogen plus progestin (EPT) therapy versus estrogen therapy (ET) alone that it was time to make some changes,” said Dr. Margery Gass, executive director, NAMS, in an interview with The Female Patient.
Plus, as NAMS reasserts, hormone therapy is still the most effective treatment for those pesky, and sometimes debilitating, menopausal symptoms. (Hormone therapy shouldn’t be confused with localized hormones in the form of a cream, tablet, or ring that are used in the vagina to treat dryness and discomfort. These aren’t absorbed into the bloodstream, but they don’t treat other menopausal symptoms, either.)
So here’s the takeaway from the latest NAMS position statement:
Sometimes we medical people get to hear about medications and treatments before they hit the doctor’s offices and pharmacies. Recently, MiddlesexMD advisor Dr. Michael Krychman interviewed Dr. James Simon, a well-connected expert in women’s sexual health, about new treatments that are under development to treat vulvovaginal atrophy (VA).
If you recall, VA is the thinning and inflammation of your delicate genital tissues, including the vagina, which is caused by loss of estrogen after menopause. As you can imagine (or already know), it causes genital irritation, an increase in minor infections, and uncomfortable—or downright painful—sex.
VA doesn’t go away, and it doesn’t get better by itself—it requires treatment, usually in the form of estrogen, whether taken internally or applied topically. Topical estrogen creams, tablets, and rings can be very effective in treating the effects of VA.
But a few new approaches are also under investigation. They are: