Fiona McMahon, PT, DPT
“Vaginismus”, it sounds like a dirty word if you have never heard it before, but for the many, many women who experience this painful and frustrating disorder, it is an important diagnosis to understand, recognize and treat in order to improve quality of life.
Vagnismus occurs when the muscles of the vagina clench or spasm, making penetration by a partner, toy, tampon, or speculum impossible and painful. These spasms occur independently of the person’s desire to have sex. As you could imagine, this condition can be be extremely frustrating and can interfere with an individual’s sex life and health. Vaginismus can also occur in anticipation of pain, which is reinforced by unsuccessful attempts at penetration. Other gynecological, muscular, and gastrointestinal disorders can perpetuate the pain and spasm feedback loop.
Treatment for vaginismus must be holistic and may incorporate treatment for any medical or systemic causes of pain, counselling to reduce stress and fear associated with penetration, and physical therapy to help “teach” the muscles of the pelvic floor to relax and lengthen in order to accommodate penetration. It takes a skilled clinician to recognize all the components contributing to vaginismus and to make referrals to other members of the healthcare team as necessary.
The medical approach for vaginismus may be two pronged in order to relieve this condition. First, your doctor or nurse practitioner may prescribe a medicine to help treat the specific symptom of pain with penetration. Your healthcare provider (HCP) may also identify a medical cause to pain with penetration. By treating the cause, your HCP can help to break the pain and spasm cycle of vaginismus. Some medical conditions that can contribute to vaginismus include, endometriosis, intersitial cystitits, skin conditions such as lichen planus, simplex, or sclerosis, or hormone imbalances affecting the vulvar skin.
Sometimes, getting referred to therapy, when you have a problem like vaginismus can seem insulting, like someone is telling you “it’s all in your head”. It’s not. In a study conducted by Van der Velde in 2001, pelvic floor muscle response was found in both women with pelvic pain and without in response to a threatening movie. You can imagine how this could affect a woman who has had a history of painful penetration. Therapy can go a long way towards lessening the fear around penetration and allowing your body to relax in sexual situations.
Vaginismus isn’t all in anyone’s head. It is a very real physical response to anticipated pain. Vaginismus often affects one’s partner as well. She or he may develop fear of hurting you and may be afraid to have sex. Sex therapists can work with individuals and couples to help facilitate a non threatening return to sex.
Physical therapy is a mainstay of treatment for vaginismus, and in simple cases may be all that is required. Vaginismus is all about overactive muscles and there is so much we can do for muscles as physical therapists.
Treatment for vaginismus is all about taking one’s time and making the patient as comfortable as possible with every aspect of treatment. Rushing to perform an internal pelvic exam is not in anyone’s interest as it may facilitate increased guarding and spasm. That being said we can work to lessen the strain on the pelvic floor muscles by releasing the surrounding tissues and fascia of the abdomen and legs. We can also use external biofeedback, which is a way for you to see in real time, whether or not you are tightening your pelvic floor so you can gain more control over it.
When you are ready, the therapist will do an internal exam, where she will place a gloved finger into the vagina to assess whether or not there is trigger points ( highly irritable tight bands of tissue) or spasm within the muscle. When trigger points or spasm are present in the muscle she will work to release the muscles so that they can better stretch to accommodate an object penetrated into the vaginal canal, as well as reduce pain with penetration in hope of breaking the pain and spasm cycle.
Another great part of physical therapy in treating vaginismus is the home exercise plan your therapist will prescribe. Dilators are commonly used tool for treating vaginismus both at home and in the clinic. Dilators are cylinder shaped wands that are inserted into the vaginal canal. They come in many different sizes. The smallest size is usually smaller than a tampon. Usually a therapist and patient will work their way up from the smallest to “goal” size. Goal size is decided by the patient and corresponds to the patient’s desired functional goal, whether that is accommodating a speculum, tampon, toy, or partner’s penis. Dilators can do a number of things for someone with vaginismus. First they allow for a gentle stretching of the vaginal canal both at home and at therapy. Dilator use at home can really help to speed up a course of therapy. Secondarily, dilators can allow the patient confidence in a private place devoid of a partner’s expectations which can then be transferred to sexual relations with the patient’s partner.
Your therapist may also suggest stretching and strengthening exercises to help take pressure off of the pelvic floor, because the pelvic floor may be tight if it is working too hard to stabilize the bones and organs of the abdomen .
Sex doesn’t have to be painful and even with the worst cases of vaginismus, there is help. The physical therapists at Beyond Basics are specially trained to recognize vaginismus and identify the its specific causes in each individual case. If you are affected by this condition, please consider visiting us for an evaluation. Also check out the film “Tightly Wound” which is a personal account of living with and treating vaginismus.
Harish T, Muliyala K, Murthy P. Successful management of vaginismus: An eclectic approach. Indian J Psychiatry. 2011;53(2): 154-155
Van der Velde J, Laan E, Everaerd W. Vaginismus, a component of a general defensive reaction. An investigation of pelvic floor muscle activity during exposure to emotion- inducing film excerpts in women with and without vaginismus. Int Urogynecol J Pelvic Floor Dysfunct. 2001; 12 (5) 328-31