Andrew Siegel MD 4 /15 /17
A pessary is a vaginal insert that is used to help provide pelvic support in women with vaginal prolapse of the urogenital organs, a.k.a. pelvic organ prolapse (POP). Pessaries are available in a variety of sizes and shapes and when positioned in place within the vagina, function as “struts” to help keep the prolapsing pelvic organ(s) in proper anatomical position. They are ideal for older patients who have medical issues that preclude surgical treatment and for women who opt for non-surgical management. Pessaries need to be removed periodically in order to clean them. Some are designed to permit sexual intercourse.
A Few Words on POP
POP is a common condition in which there is weakness of the pelvic muscles and connective tissues that provide pelvic support, allowing one or more of the pelvic organs to move from their normal positions into the potential space of the vaginal canal and, at its most severe degree, outside the vaginal opening. POP is an important issue in women’s health, with an increasing prevalence correlating with extended longevity. Two-thirds of women who have delivered children vaginally have anatomical evidence of POP (although many are not symptomatic) and 10-20% will need to undergo a corrective surgical procedure. The true prevalence of POP is not known because of the large number of women who do not seek medical care for the problem.
POP is not life threatening, but can be a distressing and disruptive problem that negatively impacts quality of life. Despite how common an issue it is, many women are reluctant to seek help because they are too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone or have the misconception that there are no treatment options available or fear that surgery will be the only solution.
POP may involve any pelvic organ including the urinary, intestinal and gynecological tracts. The bladder is the organ that is most commonly involved in POP. POP can vary from minimal descent—causing few, if any, symptoms—to major descent—in which one or more of the pelvic organs prolapse outside the vagina at all times, causing significant symptoms. The degree of descent varies with position and activity level, increasing with the upright position and/or exertion and decreasing with lying down and resting, as is the case for any hernia.
POP can give cause a variety of symptoms, depending on which organ is involved and the extent of the prolapse. The most common complaints are the following: a vaginal bulge or lump, the perception that one’s insides are falling outside, and vaginal “pressure.” Because POP often causes vaginal looseness in addition to one or more organs falling into the space of the vaginal canal, sexual complaints are common, including painful intercourse, altered sexual feeling and difficulty achieving orgasm as well as less partner satisfaction.
3 Options to Manage POP
- Surgery (Pelvic Reconstruction)
Conservative treatment options for POP include pelvic floor muscle training (for details on pelvic muscle training for POP see http://www.TheKegelFix.com), modification of activities that promote the POP (heavy lifting and high impact exercises), management of constipation and other circumstances that increase abdominal pressure, weight loss, smoking cessation and consideration for hormone replacement, since estrogen replacement can increase tissue integrity and suppleness.
A pessary is a non-surgical option for treating POP, used with the goal of improving quality of life, body image, and bladder, bowel and sexual function. Pessaries are made of soft and pliable hypoallergenic plastic or silicone and can successfully alleviate symptoms of POP in 85% of those who use them. About 50% or so of women who trial pessaries continue to use them for the long term, with discontinuation typically occurring in those who cannot retain the pessary, those experiencing discomfort or pain, those who desire surgery, and those who are incapable of inserting and removing them.
It is important to know that pessaries are not successful in all women with POP. They tend to fail in women with significantly enlarged vaginal openings, in which case the pessary can fall out with effort and exertion. Factors associated with a higher risk for failure are younger age, obesity, and weak pelvic floor muscles.
For Whom is a Pessary Appropriate?
- Older women who are not candidates for surgery
- Anyone who desires non-surgical management of their POP
- For those who need to delay surgery, wish to defer surgery or simply desire to trial one prior to surgery
Image Above: A Potpourri of Pessaries
What Types of Pessaries Are Available?
For Mild-Moderate POP
The ring pessary (7:00 position of image above) is the simplest and most commonly used pessary that has the least side effects. It is widely employed because of its ease of insertion, good vaginal fit and allowance for sexual intercourse without removing it. A variation of the ring pessary is one with central support. The oval pessary is a variation of the ring used in narrow vaginas. The Shaatz pessary (4:00 position of image above) is another variation. The incontinence dish pessary (5:00 position of image above) is used for stress urinary incontinence and mild POP. A variation of this comes with a central support.
For Moderate-Severe POP
The Gellhorn pessary (3:00 position of image above) is used for greater degrees of POP than the pessaries described in the paragraph above, which are typically used for mild-moderate POP. It tends to produce the greatest degree of vaginal discharge because of its shape. The Hodge pessary has wires that can be manually shaped to fit the nuances of one’s anatomy. The Gehrung pessary (10:00 position of image above) also has wires that allow it to be manually shaped. The donut pessary (center position of image above) is soft allowing it to be compressed for insertion, even with its bulk. The cube pessary (9:00 position of image above) comes with a tie to help with its removal.
What Are Side Effects Of Pessaries?
The most common side effects are vaginal discharge and vaginitis (vaginal irritation or infection). Occasionally, vaginal ulcerations can occur because of abrasive contact of the pessary with the delicate lining of the vagina.
How Does One Get Fitted For A Pessary?
A pelvic exam is performed prior to the fitting in order to help determine the proper size and type. A properly fitted pessary should be large enough to function optimally, but not so large that it causes pressure or discomfort. It should be possible to insert a finger between the pessary’s outer rim and the wall of the vagina.
Usually a ring pessary (size 2, 3, or 4) is initially trialled. It comes in 9 sizes, ranging from 2.00-4.00 in 0.25 increments. If unsuccessful, a Gellhorn (size 2, 2.25, 2.5, or 2.75), cube or other model is utilized, depending upon particular circumstances. The largest pessary that is comfortable is placed and the patient is asked to walk and strain to ensure that it remains in proper position. Motivated patients can be taught how to remove, clean and reinsert it. Typically, removal is done once weekly prior to sleeping, with reinsertion the following morning. For the less motivated patient, the gynecologist can remove, clean and replace the device every three months or so.
Bottom Line: Pessaries are a non-surgical alternative to help provide pelvic support in women with pelvic organ prolapse. They are available in a variety of sizes and shapes and need to be fitted and sized to the particulars of one’s anatomy. They fold and compress to facilitate insertion and removal. They are ideal for older patients who have medical issues that preclude surgical treatment. If pessaries fail to improve the POP or cannot be retained or are poorly tolerated, a surgical procedure–pelvic reconstruction–can be performed to remedy the problem.
Wishing you the best of health,
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Dr. Andrew Siegel is a practicing physician and urological surgeon board-certified in urology as well as in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. Dr. Siegel serves as Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School and is a Castle Connolly Top Doctor New York Metro Area, Inside Jersey Top Doctor and Inside Jersey Top Doctor for Women’s Health. His mission is to “bridge the gap” between the public and the medical community that is in such dire need of bridging.
Author of MALE PELVIC FITNESS: Optimizing Sexual & Urinary Health http://www.MalePelvicFitness.com
Author of THE KEGEL FIX: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health http://www.TheKegelFix.com