“Experiencing vaginal atrophy will definitely impact your sex life and communication is key!” These are the wise words of 53-year-old Aussie mother Susan Jarvis, owner of Spicy Boudoir, who like many women is coming to terms with the changes that occur to the female body during menopause.
From the mood swings, to the hot flushes, it’s not a stage of life that many (well likely any) women look forward to, but there’s no getting around it. So, year after year women battle with the symptoms, both the obvious and the hidden, and do their best to carry on with their day-to-day activities.
Unfortunately some of the symptoms can be painful and not often talked about – such as the condition vaginal atrophy (VA). In fact, women may not even realise what they’re dealing with, because there’s very little conversation about the topic
VA is caused by a reduction in circulating oestrogen levels, leading to thinning of the vaginal wall and a decrease in moisture in the vagina which ultimately causes vaginal dryness, pain during sexual intercourse, and/or irritation of the vulva – not a nice mix. And, according to research, it’s incredibly common, with between 67 to 97 per cent of women experiencing the condition.
For Susan, the discomfort from dryness and burning was a major sign that something wasn’t right. And hence, she contacted her general practitioner (something she strongly recommends) and underwent a physical examination and blood test to rule out any illnesses. Thankfully, none were detected, but it did show that she was entering menopause.
Having an answer was good news, but it didn’t stop the fact that she was in pain and her wellbeing began to drop dramatically. Enjoying life and a sexual relationship was off the cards for fear something might go terribly wrong.
“Experiencing pain and discomfort is never a recipe for wellbeing and I certainly didn’t feel any motivation to be sexual, and I didn’t want to leave the house for extended periods of time either,” she said. “My tissue felt so dry I was worried I would tear if I moved excessively. It was so uncomfortable! I just didn’t want to be social with anyone.”
These feelings are certainly not unusual among women. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine those who have VA are more likely to experience a lower quality of life than women without the condition. In fact, researchers found VA can decrease quality of life in a way that compares to serious conditions such as arthritis, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.
The most common symptoms included vaginal dryness and pain during sex. While other symptoms were itching, vulvar and vaginal irritation and bleeding after sex.
Thankfully for Susan the situation has been made easier with the support of her understanding partner with whom she has been able to discuss her experience with VA. Susan said “communication is key” and being able to voice your concerns is vital to continuing a happy and healthy life – and sex doesn’t have to be a no-go!
“Being able to say to your partner, ‘I would love to share physical intimacy with you, however I am experiencing pain and discomfort around my vulva’ is far more productive to a relationship than a cold shoulder, avoidance or a flat ‘not interested’,” Susan explained.
“Likewise, the other person needs to be able to say, ‘I understand and that’s okay. Is there anything I can do to help?’ and not place pressure to engage in sexual activity.”
She continued: “We are so heavily conditioned to think of intercourse as being defined as penis-in-vagina activity that we forget that there is more than one way to receive and give pleasure. How about taking it in turns to pleasure each other using massage/and or pleasure products? What about just slowing down and reconnecting through eye gazing, touch and conversation? What about just forgetting about achieving an orgasm and just enjoy the journey?”
According to Susan, sexual activity can be made more comfortable and enjoyable through the use of lubrication, while positioning and foreplay will be “your best friend”. She said you can never have enough lubrication, with her recommended brands including Pjur and Sutil – which can be purchased on the Sassy Marketplace. These lubricants can help to bring moisture levels back into balance and reduce dryness during intercourse.
Meanwhile, pillows and positioning accessories such as wedges, the Heart Wedge Merlot or Jaz pillows can allow for a more enjoyable sexual experience when you’re living with VA. And importantly, sometimes a bit of extra foreplay can make all the difference! This could be through the use of toys, or just simple actions that increase arousal.
“As women age our arousal response changes from being spontaneous to being responsive,” Susan said. “Our ovaries are no longer driving our libido and many women think that their libido has packed up and left the building once they enter menopause. I thought so too until I discovered that my clitoris still works, it just speaks differently now.
“Whereas before I could be aroused fairly quickly, now my body takes longer to say ‘hello, I’m here!’ and so my partner and I have made a pact to dedicate our intimacy to each other’s arousal. There is never any pressure on him to perform and never any pressure on me to reach climax quickly. It’s as if the clock is switched off in our bedroom.”
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