Millions of women experience pelvic floor or other sexual health issues at some point during their lives, and there’s no need to suffer in silence. Many of these conditions are treatable and there are resources readily available to help.
Here are five common myths that keep women from seeking medical help for pelvic and sexual health problems – and the actual facts that can put these myths to rest and help you find relief.
Myth #1: Pelvic health issues like bladder leakage and painful sex are to be expected as a woman – especially if you’ve been through childbirth.
Fact: Pelvic health problems aren’t something that you just have to accept because you’re a woman, you’ve had children or you’ve reached a certain age.
It’s important to know that at any stage of life:
- It’s not normal for sex, a pelvic exam or putting in a tampon to be painful.
- It’s not normal to have vaginal dryness.
- It’s not normal to have to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes. And on the flip side, it’s not normal to hold it through an entire 8-hour shift. What is normal is using the bathroom every 2 to 3 hours when you’re awake and using it no more than once in the middle of the night.
- It’s not normal to feel like you have to pee all the time, or to lose control of your bladder when you’re coughing, laughing, sneezing or walking.
- It’s not normal to feel pain or a burning sensation while peeing.
- It’s not normal to be unable to empty your bladder fully.
These issues have lots of different underlying causes. In fact, there are often multiple factors. And these causes are rarely just age – or gender – related. Some vaginal deliveries can cause pelvic floor problems. Some cesarean sections can lead to postpartum urinary incontinence. But it’s key to know that if a woman does have a weaker pelvic floor muscle or a decrease in sex drive after having a baby, it doesn’t mean it will never come back. It’s also important to know that vaginal deliveries are not the only potential cause of pelvic floor issues. Women who have never had a baby can be affected, too.
Myth #2: No one knows what I’m going through and it’s too embarrassing to talk about.
Fact: One out of every four women has some kind of pelvic or sexual health issue in her life. Still, many feel isolated and are shy to talk about it.
The best thing women can do is be open and honest about these things with their friends. Many women don’t know treatment is an option, or they don’t know the difference it can make to their quality of life. So when you experience a pelvic or sexual health issue and talk about it, it can really help someone else. Creating a culture where women are helping women is so important, especially in areas like this which can be seen as embarrassing to discuss.
Talking with your partner is also really important. It can be uncomfortable, yes. But not talking can create a divide between the two of you, and that can increase your feelings of isolation even more.
Having open dialogue will also dispel myths that your partner might assume. Take the case of dealing with vaginal dryness, for instance. This can be an underlying reason for painful sex. Dry, sandpaper-like vaginal tissue is not conducive to enjoyable sex. And because of that, a woman who is dealing with it may very well decrease her sexual activity.
Vaginal dryness is commonly caused by a loss of estrogen associated with menopause or breastfeeding. A partner, however, might incorrectly assume it to be a sign of disinterest – that’s why it’s so important to communicate. Most partners want to know if intercourse is causing pain. They are usually very willing to take the steps to help create enjoyable sex.
Myth #3: Bladder problems just happen as you age. You can’t reverse it.
Fact: Pelvic and bladder issues affect women of all ages. Women as young as 20, as old as 90, and every age in between.
As you age, your body does change. But that doesn’t mean that an issue can’t be fixed or that there isn’t a simple solution.
There are many distinct issues that could be affecting someone with pelvic pain or bladder problems. And there are numerous reasons for these issues, too. A person’s issue could be linked to when, what and how much liquid they’re drinking. It could be linked to stress, depression or anxiety. It could be linked to other medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or constipation. And there are a host of other possibilities.
This complexity is why getting a thorough pelvic exam is so important. An exam can identify the cause of the symptoms and what’s needed to effectively treat pelvic pain and bladder issues. Talk to your primary care doctor or OB-GYN to schedule an appointment for an exam.
Myth #4: Surgery is the only option for pelvic and sexual health issues.
Fact: The days of, “Let’s just do surgery or prescribe pills,” have passed. Exercises and other lifestyle changes can clear up many issues, so pelvic physical therapy is now the starting point for treatment. Options may include:
- Bladder retraining
- Managing fluids and making other behavior changes
- Vaginal tissue care
- Reeducating the pelvic muscle on how to relax and contract
Often, education can make us aware of habits we didn’t even know we had. For someone waking up more than once during the night to go to the bathroom, avoiding caffeine, carbonated drinks and alcohol could help.
The feeling of needing to pee all the time can be reduced by using the bathroom at regular, normal intervals. Vaginal moisturizers and using lubrication during sex can drastically reduce pain for women experiencing vaginal dryness (perhaps while breastfeeding or after menopause). All of this, combined with pelvic muscle exercises, can effectively resolve a patient’s symptoms without medicine or surgery.
Myth #5: Kegels don’t help at all.
Fact: Kegel exercises are very effective in reducing or resolving urinary leaking. That is, they’re effective when done correctly. Many women need help identifying the right muscles to target for Kegels (pelvic floor exercises). And 50% of women perform them incorrectly.
If you aren’t able to locate the right muscles and correctly contract and relax them, the exercises won’t help. And if you get into the habit of doing the exercises improperly, it can even make things worse. As with any exercise, proper technique is key.
Talk to your doctor about pelvic or sexual health symptoms
Whether it’s losing sleep for trips to the bathroom or noticing a burning sensation after sex, don’t delay care for uncomfortable symptoms. While these things may be common, they aren’t normal, and you don’t need to power through it.
If you’re experiencing pelvic or sexual health issues, talk to a primary care doctor or women’s health specialist.
There are a variety of treatment options to address pelvic and sexual health issues, and their underlying causes. You and your doctor can talk about the best options for you, and they can refer you to a urogynecology specialist if needed.