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with Jane Harrison-Hohner, RN, RNP and Laura Corio, MD

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Can A Vagina Be Too Big?

Faithful readers of this blog may remember that Masters and Johnson examined the vaginal sizes of 100 women who had never been pregnant. These women showed an un-stimulated vaginal length of 2 ¾-3 ¼ inches , with a ¾ inch width at the back of the vagina. During the sexual excitement phase the vaginal lengths increased to 3 ¾- 5 ¾ inches, with the width at the back of the vagina being 2 ¼-2 ½ inches. This correlates with our most common diaphragm sizes which are between 2 ½ -3 ½ inches in length.

“But I’m not worried about vaginal length,” you might be thinking. “My problem is that I think my vagina is too loose – or too wide. Is that possible? If so what can I do?” Let’s examine some of the medical data available to answer these questions.

Is my vagina too loose?
The vagina is like a collapsed, expandable tube lined with skin; the tissue below the skin is loose and contains large veins. Next are smaller circular muscles surrounded by stronger bands of muscle which run the length of the vagina. In addition, the lower third of the vagina is surrounded by a ring of muscles. This is covered by more connective tissue and blood vessels. Damage to these muscles, or if they become thin and weak, can allow the bladder (“cytocele”) or rectum (“rectocele”) to pouch into the vagina. Thus you can understand the importance of strong vaginal muscles. The ring of muscles around the vaginal opening contract during orgasm and may contribute to the intensity of an orgasm.

So what is too loose? This can be a matter of opinion based upon the input of a sexual partner, or one’s observations of vaginal tone. Researchers have devised some ways to measure vaginal tone such as a pressure sensitive intravaginal balloon device, and ultrasound measurements of vaginal area (“pelvic floor”) muscle thickness. A study of 30 women aged 20-42 found that better developed vaginal muscles were linked to having orgasms, and getting physical exercise. Conversely, increased age and having been pregnant were linked to decreased strength of vaginal muscles (McKey and Dougherty 1986).

A more recent study using ultrasound measurements (Bernstein,1997) found similar connections. Muscle thickness decreases with age, especially in women older than 60. Women with urinary incontinence had thinner pelvic floor muscles than women who were not incontinent.

Will exercising the vaginal muscles make my vagina tighter?
Two ultrasound studies of women who exercised their vaginal muscles did find that their muscles were thicker and stronger after pelvic floor muscle training. Among women with urine leakage, their thinner muscles became the thickness of healthy women’s pelvic floor muscles. Additionally, they had less urine leakage – whether the problem was from stress or urge types of incontinence. The use of vaginal cones and/or Kegel exercises to increase muscle strength were both found to improve tone and decrease urine loss. While some of these studies did not measure vaginal tightness per se, when muscle bulk is increased, a woman can voluntarily contract those muscles to make the vaginal opening tighter.

Do tighter vaginal muscles really improve sexual response?
Despite the fact that most every discussion of Kegel exercises includes improved sex, there are not many scientific studies to back up this claim. One recent publication (Dean, 2008) reported on sexual function and pelvic muscle factors for some 2,800 women. Women who delivered only by Caesarean section (and their partners) perceived they had better vaginal tone leading to improved sexual satisfaction. Women who were currently doing pelvic muscle exercises scored much better on sexual satisfaction questions than women who did not. Women with incontinence (probably thinner muscles) scored the worst on the sex questions.

I’ve tried Kegel exercises but they don’t work for me.
Assuming that the Kegel exercises have been done correctly, it may be time to move to other options. One low tech choice is weighted vaginal cones. This is a set of weights, shaped more like a tampon than a cone, where one inserts the lightest version then uses the vaginal muscles to hold it up inside. This is done twice daily. When this is easy the next heaviest cone is used – and so on. This is to be done while going about normal activities so that gravity provides an additional challenge to keeping the weight up inside.

More technology is involved in the electrical stimulator. A tampon shaped probe is inserted in the vagina and small electric shocks cause the muscles to contract then relax. This is done about 20 minutes up to several times a week. One patient of mine who used this device found it sexually pleasurable.

Less commonly used may be the “magnetic chair” (“Neocontrol”). This chair uses magnetic action to stimulate the muscles. I know this sounds very “woo, woo”, but there is good data showing its effectiveness. This device is not for home use; treatments are given twice weekly by specially trained health care personnel.

Will plastic surgery make my vagina smaller?
Many genital plastic surgery techniques are based upon GYN surgical procedures used for medical problems such as reconstruction after cancer treatment, gender change, repair of cystocele/rectocele, etc. Unfortunately there are few good studies showing benefit where there is no overt medical problem.

One study of 53 women in Santiago, Chile (Pardo, 2006) was done specifically for complaints of wide vagina and decreased sexual satisfaction. The surgeons did two procedures. The first was inside the vagina where tissue along the roof was stitched tighter. This is similar to the type of repair done for a cystocele. Secondly, tissue around the vaginal opening and between the vagina and anus was stitched tighter. This is similar to the type of repair done for episiotomies after childbirth. Six months after surgery 94% claimed they experienced a tighter vagina, and had regained or improved orgasms. Yet some 4% of the women said they regretted the surgery.

The problem with this type of study is that sexual response can be very subjective. There is no easy way to measure sexual satisfaction in a group of diverse women. Every woman knew she got the surgical treatment so six months may not be a long enough time for any placebo response to wear off.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG, 2007) has noted the lack of both safety and effectiveness data for genital plastic surgery. The possible complications for such surgery might include: infection, changes in sensation, pain with intercourse, and scar tissue. One GYN who has been performing genital plastic surgery for a number of years (Goodman, 2009) concluded that agreed upon terminology and training standards are still lacking.

What are you going to do, Jane?
As a big advocate of resistance/weight training to build muscles, I personally think exercise is a better place to start than surgery. As always, if a woman has concerns about sexual function, vaginal/genital structures, etc she should bring these up to her GYN. A GYN sees the wide range of “normal” in vaginal appearances. Yet, if one is having sexual problems due to genital changes, your GYN n
eeds to know that is an issue.

If you are interested in exercising your vaginal muscles here are some instructions to get your started: Kegel Exercises – Topic Overview.

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Posted by: Jane Harrison-Hohner, RN, RNP at 9:15 am

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