Is your vagina stressed? Here’s How Your Busy Schedule Could Be Taking Its Toll Down There
Eek! Modern life, all that to-do listing and maybe even trusty kegels could be wreaking havoc on your vagina. Jeanne Sutton investigates.
Traditionally, we associate internalising stress with a tense back and shoulders. The trapezius muscles in the upper back are often the culprits when worries like career conundrums, simmering relationship issues and bank balance fears won’t shift. Stiff shoulders beg for the relief of a Thai or Swedish massage, although let’s be honest, we’re more likely to turn the immersion on and seek out some Radox – Epsom salts if we’re being really fancy.
But now experts are looking lower, too. Specifically, the vagina and pelvic floor. Yes, you may have mocked Gwyneth and her vagina steaming chat, but yours may be adding to your stress levels, causing overall stiffness and life-distracting pain.
When we’re talking about vaginal muscles, we’re referring to the pelvic floor muscles – a ‘hammock’ from the tail bone to the pubic bone which connects the front, back, and sides of the pelvis. It supports the bladder, uterus and bowel. When they’re doing their job, pelvic floor muscles contract and relax for bowel movements, urination and penetrative vaginal sex.
Kegels are the go-to exercises to keep the pelvic floor strong – they’re also delightfully associated with more intense orgasms. You can do them yourself – clench! – or even download an app. Yet, sometimes kegels aren’t the passport to pelvic joy for certain women. In fact, too much tension sees the muscles becoming overactive and unable to relax. The vagina and vulva becomes uncomfortably tender, with trigger points causing pain in the pelvic region, abdomen area and lower back.
“You may only have slight symptoms, or you may exhibit other signs,” Aoibhín McGreal, a clinical specialist physiotherapist in pelvic floor dysfunction, clarifies. General signs of pelvic floor stress includes pain in the area. Urinary urgency and symptoms like a UTI might be a sign. Painful sex is another flag. If the thought of a smear test makes you clam up or tampons are uncomfortable to use, you may be harbouring tension. Constipation and muscle contractions are also symptoms.
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Women with certain health conditions are more likely to suffer. Endometriosis, interstitual cystitis, chronic thrush and vulvodynia – which the NHS defines as, “a persistent, unexplained pain in the vulva,” comparable to the stab of a needle – are just some of the illnesses that rock up with it. Women who have stress and anxiety are also prone.
Are overactive pelvic floors are on the increase? “I don’t know if it’s a growing problem,” Aoibhín says. “I don’t know if it’s because life’s more stressful, or we just know more.” She confirms a lot of women seeking treatment are under pressure – they may have stressful jobs in finance or are stay-at-home mums, juggling every task imaginable. They tend to be women with busy personalities. “They never stop, there’s never any downtime…,” she points out.
In the past, women were dismissed by some GPs and told to relax. Calm down. Take more baths. “Now there’s more we can do,” Aoibhin says. A good doctor will take your concerns seriously and rule everything out as well as refer you to a gynaecologist, who may work alongside a physiotherapist.
A specialised physiotherapist will assess you via an internal exam and work on a pelvic floor relaxation methods using a tailored programme. Eventually you’ll walk away with the ability to self-manage using breathing, bodyscanning, visualisation and release techniques that won’t exacerbate the muscles. The aim is a strong pelvic floor, not a ‘tight’ one.
What’s clear is the fact we need to have an attitude switch-up. Aideen Macken is a pilates instructor in The Elbowroom in Dublin’s Smithfield and she says, “women should become more comfortable with having internal physiotherapy exams.” In recent years, she’s noticed more and more women are shy to talk about these issues and she’d love to see an end to this kind of shame.
The vagina monologue needs a rewrite. It’s boring and unhelpful that the only time vaginal health is talked about openly is to slag Gwyneth Paltrow’s advice to steam ‘down there’.
This article originally appeared in STELLAR’s June issue. The mag’s August issue is on shelves now!
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