It is estimated that approximately 40 million women in the United States are of menopausal age, and a woman is expected to live approximately one third of her life after menopause. These women may experience a variety of familiar symptoms as they transition through menopause, including hot flashes, night sweats and mood swings.
But, in addition to these commonly known and accepted symptoms, many women may also experience symptoms that they do not necessarily associate with menopause and may be embarrassed to talk about, even with their health care professional. These symptoms, which may cause considerable discomfort, are known as vulvar and vaginal atrophy.
What Causes These Symptoms?
At menopause, estrogen levels begin to drop. This can cause the vaginal walls to become thinner and less lubricated, which can result in redness, irritation, dryness, itching and burning. These vaginal changes can also make sexual intercourse difficult or even painful for some women, a condition called dyspareunia. Dyspareunia typically will not subside without treatment.
If you have not heard of vulvar and vaginal atrophy, you are not alone. In fact, according to the REVEAL (REvealing Vaginal Effects At mid-Life) Surveys, conducted on behalf of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now Pfizer Inc), most of the 1,006 postmenopausal women surveyed have heard of the traditional symptoms related to menopause like hot flashes (97 percent), night sweats (95 percent) and mood swings (92 percent) but fewer have heard of vulvar and vaginal pain (43 percent) and dyspareunia (57 percent).
However, just because women do not necessarily associate vaginal symptoms with menopause does not mean they are not experiencing them.As health care professionals, we know that the vaginal pain and discomfort that many women experience later in life can be a result of menopause. Unfortunately, many women consider it an inevitable part of the aging process that cant be helped, so they just deal with it the best they can, it is almost a grin and bear it philosophy says Dr. Michael Krychman, Executive Director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine, and a REVEAL collaborator. Further, while 25 percent of the women surveyed reported that they experienced dyspareunia at least sometimes, less than half of those women (44 percent) have spoken with their health care professional about this condition.Bridging the Gap So why are so many women keeping quiet about this distressing and painful condition? Often times it is because they may be too embarrassed to have the discussion. In fact, among those surveyed experiencing dyspareunia who have not spoken to their health care professional about this condition, the No. 1 reason was embarrassment (39 percent), followed by the belief that there is nothing that can be done medically to help (26 percent). Additionally, roughly half of all women surveyed (47 percent) agreed it is still taboo in society to acknowledge experiencing symptoms of menopause such as vulvar and vaginal dryness or painful intercourse.
But according to Dr. Krychman, there is no need to be embarrassed and there are, in fact, approved safe treatments that can help and ease the discomfort. Health care professionals are trained to understand all of the symptoms associated with menopause, even the so-called embarrassing ones, so women should feel comfortable openly discussing their symptoms with us, says Dr. Krychman. Women should not have to live with unnecessary discomfort schedule an appointment and initiate the discussion. Get the Conversation StartedTo help ensure the experience is a positive and productive one, Dr. Krychman provides the following suggested tips: Write down your symptoms or use an online assessor, like the one found at RevealSurvey.com, and bring those results with you to your medical visit to share with your health care professional. Prioritize your questions and concerns in case you have limited time with your health care professional. Maybe even consider a separate visit to specifically discuss the concerns regarding vulvar or vaginal dryness If you are still not fully comfortable discussing this topic, let your health care professional know. This will help them understand your concerns and help them to approach the discussion in a sensitive manner.To learn more about vaginal symptoms due to menopause and for more information on the REVEAL Surveys, visit www.RevealSurvey.com.