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Archive for October, 2017

Recently, we’ve been discussing the reasons to have (or not to have) a hysterectomy and the various surgical options—all very important information to have before you decide to have the procedure.

Now let’s talk about what happens after the surgery. Specifically, what might happen to your sex life.

Usually, your doctor will tell you to wait about four to six weeks before having sex, depending on the type of procedure you had. You might want to clarify with your doctor exactly what he or she means by “sex.” Usually, that means vaginal penetration. So ask if oral sex is okay. How about using a vibrator or a hand?

When you’re ready for intercourse, you’ll want to start gently—lots of lube and gentle penetration. If the cervix was removed, it may take time for the top of the vagina (the “vaginal cuff”) to heal. Penetration may feel differently for a while. (Here’s a good metaphor for the process.)

Sometimes, emotional healing has to happen as well. After all, hysterectomy is the surgical end to childbearing. For some, depending on the reason for the hysterectomy, this is a relief; for others, it’s a significant and sometimes difficult transition. If you are overwhelmed by emotion or even depression, give yourself some time and space to heal. You may also need to seek out a listening ear or professional counselor to regain balance.

If your ovaries were removed, and you haven’t yet gone through menopause, or even if you’re in perimenopause, be prepared for the possibility of significant emotional and physical change. With the removal of your ovaries, hormone production suddenly stops, and you’re now in surgically induced menopause. This requires some preparation ahead of time and some patience and therapy after the procedure.

The good news is that, for most women, sex tends to be unchanged and is sometimes better. The parts necessary for orgasm are still intact, and the issues that may have caused the trouble in the first place (pain or bleeding) are gone. “Most women tell me that there is no change in the way they feel orgasm, and they are able to enjoy sex more since they don’t have their original problem to interfere with sex,” writes Dr. Paul Indman in this article.

This opinion is supported by several studies confirming that, for most women, sex is the same or better after a hysterectomy. In a small study of 104 women, researchers determined that the best predictor of the quality of sex after a hysterectomy was the quality of sex before the procedure.

Despite the research, some women say that sex just isn’t the same. They report weaker orgasms and less sensation, loss of libido, and difficulty with arousal. Therapies can help—hormone replacement, localized estrogen, lubes and moisturizers—but they can’t replace nature.

Furthermore, although the vast majority of women recover well, a hysterectomy is still a surgical procedure with all the attendant risks and uncertainties. Unexpected outcomes happen—nerves may be damaged; prolapse or fistula may occur. The long-term effect of removing significant abdominal organs is still poorly understood.

With that in mind, some tips for approaching this, or any, surgery might be:

  • Try the most conservative treatments first. Fibroids, heavy bleeding, endometriosis can be treated with less invasive methods. Start there. A hysterectomy isn’t the first line of defense.
  • Opt for the most conservative surgery. If a hysterectomy is the best choice, make sure you understand your options. The least invasive surgical options (vaginal or laparoscopic) simply have better outcomes. If there’s no good reason to remove your ovaries, ask about keeping them.
  • Do your homework and line up your resources. Make sure you and your partner understand what’s happening and be prepared for a time of adjustment afterward.

Several years ago, an acquaintance had a total hysterectomy that included the removal of her ovaries. She was post-menopausal at the time, but sex was still very important to her and her husband. She was worried about the effect her hysterectomy would have on their sex life and discussed it with her doctor.

Recently she told me that there had indeed been a period of transition after her hysterectomy, but that over time, she had regained her former sensation, including the deep, pleasurable orgasms she had been accustomed to.

“I don’t know how it happened,” she told me. “I just worked from the memory of what sex had been before my surgery and focused on regaining that. And I did.”

Everyone’s experience is unique. It’s impossible to predict with utter certainty how an individual will respond to any surgical procedure. With a good medical team, good information, and a supportive partner, you’ve tilted the odds strongly in your favor.

 

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I wish there were an exact “science of measurement” that would answer your question definitively. The vagina is typically elastic–especially when we’re younger–and will stretch to accommodate any (or nearly any) size required, but there can be male/female matches that are outside of that range.

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.As we get older, our vaginas become less distensible and less elastic. The tissue itself becomes less elastic as we lose estrogen, and we lose the “pleating” we had when we were younger (I’ve used the analogy of going from a pleated skirt to a pencil skirt). Dilators work by gently and gradually stretching the vaginal walls, making them open enough (called patency) to allow for comfortable intercourse.

Because of the variations in tissue elasticity, atrophy, a woman’s anatomy, and her partner’s anatomy, the goals are comfort and pleasure, not a specific dimension. Dilators come in sets of graduated sizes, so a user can move from one to the next-larger as she gains comfort with each. Some women will progress through the entire range of sizes; others will be satisfied before that.

We offer a variety of dilators, because women’s preferences vary. Our most popular, the Amielle kit, includes five sizes and a removable handle that provides more length for maneuvering. For those who prefer a solid dilator, we offer a six-inch-long option in a set of five or a set of seven, again depending on need. And for some women, the texture of silicone and its ability to be warmed makes the Sinclair Institute set of five their preference.

I hope this is helpful! I’ve very happy to hear that you’re still tending to your sexual health.

 

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As I mentioned in the last post on this topic, even after you’ve decided to have a hysterectomy, a few critical questions remain. Time for a sit-down with your surgeon to hash them out.

First: How will he or she perform the procedure. There are three basic surgical options. The type of procedure your doctor chooses will affect the speed of your recovery, how long you’ll be in the hospital, and how much pain you’ll experience.

  • Abdominal hysterectomy involves removing the uterus through an incision in the abdomen, usually along the bikini line. This route involves more risk, more pain, and a longer recovery period. Depending on your unique situation, this may be the best (or only) approach, but studies consistently show that, in most cases, the following two options are preferable.
  • Laparoscopic hysterectomy involves using tiny cameras and surgical tools—sometimes operated by a robot—inserted through small abdominal incisions, either to do the hysterectomy entirely or to assist in a vaginal procedure. This is less invasive with good outcomes.
  • Vaginal hysterectomy is just what it sounds like—the uterus is withdrawn through the vagina without requiring an incision. Generally, this procedure was found to involve fewest complications, to take less time to perform, and to offer the best outcome. Some factors, such as the size of the uterus or the shape of the pelvis, might prohibit a vaginal hysterectomy, but overall, this is the best choice.

You should discuss what procedure your surgeon recommends and why. The quality and speed of your recovery rests in his or her hands.

The second topic to thoroughly discuss with your doctor is what, exactly, he or she is taking out. Here are the three umbrella categories of hysterectomy.

Hysterectomy

Hysterectomy is the removal of your uterus and the cervix, which is the organ at the top of the vagina. A lot of discussion and very few facts surrounds the pros and cons of leaving the cervix intact. Unless there’s a problem with the cervix itself, there’s no biological need to take it out—or to leave it in. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the cervix has little to do with sex, and removing it doesn’t seem to change sensation or to affect orgasm.

Removing the cervix, however, can change the vagina: It can become shorter, although rarely enough to compromise sex; some nerves might also be affected, which could make the top of your vagina more sensitive, and not in a good way. But the vagina, as we know, is a very stretchy and forgiving organ, so with the use of dilators (and gentle, consistent sex) the situation can be remedied.

Often, the cervix is removed prophylactically, to avoid a small but real cancer risk. Without a cervix, there’s no longer a risk, ergo, no more pap tests. That’s one point in its favor.

Supracervical Hysterectomy

In the supracervical hysterectomy procedure, only the uterus is removed, leaving the cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries intact. In this case, you probably won’t experience much difference in your sexual activity unless you were accustomed to deep-muscle uterine contractions with orgasm. No uterus; no more muscular contractions. You might notice other changes, however, that we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.

Hysterectomy with Bi- (or Uni-) Lateral Salpingo-Oopherectomy

Hysterectomy with bi- (or uni-) lateral salpingo-oopherectomy. Yes, it’s unpronounceable. This is the removal of one or both ovaries and the fallopian tubes along with the uterus. Unless you’re well into menopause, this procedure can put a woman in a hormonal tailspin.

The ovaries are the seat of much of testosterone production (it’s also produced by adrenals) and estrogen production—all the good stuff that keeps the sexual apparatus and our moods humming nicely along. Removing them while they’re still functioning puts a woman into immediate and sometimes intense menopause. It’s called “surgically induced menopause.” For that reason, ovaries are left intact, if possible, especially in younger women.

The decision can be complicated, however. The ovaries themselves can be diseased. Also, some women carry a genetic trait called the BRCA mutation. They are at a much higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. While breast cancers are often identified at early stages, no screening or early-stage detection exists for ovarian cancer. It’s usually discovered later, when it’s very hard to treat. For women without that genetic trait, the risk of ovarian cancer is low, but not zero.

When menopause is surgically induced, your sex life (among other things) is likely to be seriously impacted just as it is in menopause. You should prepare for low libido, a possible decrease in arousal, dry vagina—all the issues we cover so repeatedly here.

I’d strongly advise you to line up resources ahead of time. Make an appointment with a gynecologist who specializes in menopausal issues. You might be a good candidate for estrogen and/or testosterone therapy. Stock up on lubes and moisturizers. Fire up the vibrator. The hormonal transition could be rocky, but with support and medical oversight, you’ll get through it. Sex (and life) will be good again. Promise.

A lot of issues and options are involved with the decision to have a hysterectomy (beginning with the question of having one at all). Believe me, you want to understand the process, your options, and the possible outcomes. When it comes to this part of your body and your being, you want to know what’s going to happen and to minimize the surprise factor.

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You say you’ve just noticed that one breast seems “much bigger” than the other. It doesn’t have any additional sensitivity and otherwise looks the same as the other, and you had a normal mammogram earlier this year.

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.Most women have breasts that are not an exact match in size, but it’s typically a life-long reality, not a change. Breasts becoming larger isn’t normally a concern, since they change as we gain or lose weight, have children, and grow… more mature. Again, what’s “typical” is that both breasts are affected more or less equally by a change.

If one breast is changing, it’s a good idea to have a clinical exam by your healthcare provider. That’s a noninvasive way to assure that everything’s okay.

Good luck!

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I’m just gonna say it: the best time to get information about sex after a hysterectomy is before the hysterectomy ever happens.

When a patient come to me with sexual issues after having had a hysterectomy, and she is unclear about what kind of hysterectomy she actually received—what organs were removed or whether she had a laparoscopic or a vaginal procedure, for example—this indicates to me that she may not have sought or received the information she needed in order to make an informed decision.

Whether to have a hysterectomy is a loaded topic these days, so let’s just dive in and get the facts out of the way, shall we?

Hysterectomy is the second most common surgical procedure performed on women after caesarian section.  Almost 12 percent of women between 40 and 44 have had one. That number rises to 30 percent by the time you’re 60. About 600,000 procedures are performed every year in the US—the highest rate in the world, although other developed countries also do a lot of hysterectomies.

Most hysterectomies are performed for such benign but bothersome conditions as fibroid growths, endometriosis, heavy bleeding, and vaginal prolapse. Only about 10 percent are done for truly life-threatening conditions such as cancer or a uterine rupture during childbirth.

It’s almost like having a hysterectomy has become a normalized part of growing older as a woman. You get your hair colored, and you have a hysterectomy. That’s just how it goes.

Recently, however, women’s health organizations and other health professionals—as well as women themselves—have been questioning that inevitability and pushing for less radical treatments for benign conditions. These include less invasive treatments, such as having a progestin IUD placed or endometrial ablation for heavy bleeding or uterine artery embolectomy treatments for fibroids. Still, hysterectomy remains the most common go-to for a host of “female troubles.”

Like any surgical procedure, a hysterectomy involves weighing risks and benefits. These are dependent on factors such as age, childbirth history, the size and shape of the uterus, among other considerations.

For example, it might be better for a younger woman with a benign and treatable condition to first try the alternatives to the permanent removal of her uterus because her reproductive organs are still fertile and hormone-producing. Even a woman in perimenopause is still producing hormones with all their good protective benefits to vaginal tissue, heart, and bone.

A post-menopausal woman with an unpleasant uterine prolapse, on the other hand, might be a very good candidate for hysterectomy. This patient’s hormone production has virtually ended and other treatment options aren’t permanent or also involve a surgical procedure.

Sometimes, however, when a woman’s quality of life is so compromised, when she’s in enough pain or bleeding so erratically or profusely, she may be willing to do anything to make it stop. A hysterectomy will make it stop and will often improve both sex and quality of life. But a frank patient/doctor discussion is still critical—so she understands her options and, insofar as possible, what the outcome will be.

So—there are options for treatments of benign conditions such as fibroids or endometriosis. Hysterectomy is invasive and permanent, so it makes sense to explore other options first. But if a hysterectomy seems to be the best approach, you then need to know about the different types of hysterectomy and their outcomes.

This is important, ladies, because how quickly you recover and the effect on your sex life has everything to do with the type of surgery you have and what organs are removed.

We’ll discuss this in a post next week.

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You mention joint pain, weight gain, and food cravings in addition to hot flashes as symptoms of menopause. Menopause has such a variety of symptoms, depending on each individual. Lifestyle matters more; exercise is more important; adequate sleep and good nutrition—all of these have a greater impact to quality of life now than they did previously.

I wish I could tell you there is good data suggesting vitamins have a favorable impact on menopausal symptoms, but the trials looking at the specific supplements you mention and others suggest no benefit greater than placebo. But, hey, placebo has about a 30-percent response rate in any trial, so there is certainly no harm in using them. They provide some general vitamins that will not be harmful, and may help if you aren’t getting them in your diet.

The symptoms you mention could all potentially benefit from hormone therapy (HT). The loss of estrogen is huge for most women, and the loss of progesterone to some extent as well. For many women the only way to address symptoms adequately is to consider HT. More and more data suggests that HT is beneficial for women specifically with weight gain; that was a lead article in one of my journals just this week.

It’s a complicated journey that is nuanced, and each woman needs to assess her own symptoms and goals and determine the best approach to managing through menopause. It’s difficult to address all of the treatment options in a single Q&A. You might find the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) website helpful: menopause.org. They cover many issues related to menopause.

Good luck!

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Late Menopause? Overall A Good Thing

Maybe you were that girl. The last one to get her period. Maybe it’s déjà vu all over again as you wait… and wait… to cross the reproductive finish line. Menopause. It’s certainly been a thing for your girlfriends, but you only know about it secondhand.

Do not fret. Recent studies confirm a few educated guesses about women who begin menopause late, and most of it is good news for you.

Most women reach menopause between 45 and 55; the average age is 51. Menopause officially occurs one year after your last period. Late onset is considered anytime after age 55, at which point, a woman has been producing estrogen for at least 40 years, depending on when she began menstruating.

Factors that affect when a person begins her reproductive years and reaches menopause have a little to do with heredity and occasionally may be related to do with environmental factors. Those who smoke or live at high altitudes, for example, tend to begin menopause early. Most often, it occurs… well, when it occurs.

As any menopausal woman knows, estrogen is an important hormone that regulates lots of systems in your body, from your brain to your skin to your reproductive organs and keeps them running smoothly. That’s why the absence of estrogen in menopause sends you into such a tailspin and requires several years to adjust to.

We know that estrogen has protective effects on our bones and our heart. Two large-scale, recent studies confirm that women who reach menopause late, and thus are exposed to estrogen for longer, also tend to have fewer cardiovascular problems, such as strokes or heart attacks.

For example, one very recent study looked at longitudinal data for over 3,000 women, specifically examining the reproductive years—the total number of years from first menstruation to menopause—in women age 60 or over. They determined that “every one-year increase in reproductive duration… was associated with a 3% reduction in a woman’s risk of angina or stroke.”

Women with more reproductive years are also at lower risk for osteoporosis and have fewer fractures. Since estrogen keeps skin smooth and supple, late menopause tends to keep your skin smooth and your vagina lubricated.

If you are still menstruating at 55, please continue your diligence with regular gynecological exams and screenings, while you enjoy your supple skin and healthy heart. I’ve seen more vulvar cancers in the last three months than in the previous 15 years, and these were among women who hadn’t had a pelvic exam in years.

Overall, you’ll probably live longer, according to two large-scale studies. A 2005 study followed 12,134 Dutch women for 17 years and found that, when all the risk and protective factors were considered, “the net effect was an increased life span.”

Another study examined the effect of late menopause on the chances of living to age 90. These researchers selected a diverse group of post-menopausal women from the Women’s Health Initiative, the massive study of 16,251 women that ran from 1993-1998, and followed them until 2014. Of the 55 percent of women who reached age 90, odds of survival for those with over 40 reproductive years were 13 percent higher.

Neither lifestyle, weight, reproductive factors, contraception use, nor hormone therapy nor significantly altered these survival rates. The determining factor was the number of reproductive years.

“Later age at menopause is associated with better health, longer life and less cardiovascular disease,” said Ellen B. Gold, a professor emeritus in public health at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine in this article.

So buckle up, late bloomers, it might be a smoother, longer ride than you thought.

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