Vaginal atrophy is a condition in which the vaginal walls become thinner. Urinary incontinence is a condition in which it’s difficult to control the bladder. In many women, these conditions occur at the same time. Why is this?
The answer often has to do with estrogen and aging. In fact, 40-57% of postmenopasual women have symptoms of vaginal atrophy, and on the urinary incontinence side, more than 50% of older women experience it.
In this blog, our providers at Holistic OB/GYN & Midwifery explain the basics of vaginal atrophy and urinary incontinence, the symptoms of each, the connection between the two, and how both conditions can be treated.
What is vaginal atrophy?
Vaginal atrophy goes by many names, including genitourinary syndrome of menopause and atrophic vaginitis. No matter the name, vaginal atrophy occurs when the walls of the vagina become thin, dry, and inflamed.
These core symptoms tend to occur in both the vagina and the urinary tract, with dryness appearing before other symptoms. Additional symptoms can include:
- Itching in the genitals
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Increased yeast infections and UTIs
- Burning sensations when peeing
- A need to pee often
- Discomfort or bleeding during or after sex
- Less natural lubrication during sex
- Shortening and tightening of the vaginal canal.
Although most common in menopausal women, other women can also develop vaginal atrophy, such as those who are breastfeeding, are postpartum, who smoke, or are on the verge of entering menopause.
What is urinary incontinence?
Urinary incontinence occurs when you can’t control your bladder and unintentionally release urine. The most common types of incontinence are stress incontinence and urge incontinence.
Stress incontinence happens when you leak while lifting, coughing, sneezing, laughing, or performing any action that puts pressure on your bladder. Urge incontinence is defined by a sudden, strong need to urinate, often before you have time to reach the restroom.
The estrogen connection
While women can experience incontinence and vaginal atrophy separately, the two often go hand-in-hand. The main culprit is the large drop in estrogen levels during menopause.
Before menopause, estrogen helps protect the lining of the vagina and stimulates vaginal secretions, giving the vaginal walls elasticity and strength. Estrogen has a similar effect on the lining of the bladder and urethra, helping give strength and elasticity to these areas.
As levels drop due to menopause, this can create a one-two punch, and many women experience both conditions at the same time.
Prevention and treatment
The best prevention for vaginal atrophy is actually regular sexual intercourse, either with or without a partner. Sexual activity increases blood flow to the vagina and helps keep the vaginal walls healthy.
Treatment for vaginal atrophy focuses on boosting your estrogen levels. Options range from low-dose estrogen therapy focused on the vagina to full hormone replacement therapy made to benefit your whole body.
For mild cases of urinary incontinence, you can try exercises that strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, and you can also try bladder training to regain control of your bladder. Those suffering from severe urinary incontinence may need medications, medical devices, or surgery.
If you have concerns regarding urinary incontinence or vaginal atrophy and want to learn more about your treatment options, book an appointment online or over the phone with Holistic OB/GYN & Midwifery today.