If you've never used a vaginal dilator or don't know anyone who has, you might be in the dark on its actual definition. These tube-like tools, which come in varying sizes, are meant to be inserted into the vagina to help treat several different vaginal-related conditions, one of the more common being pain during sex.
To help demystify the device for you, we spoke to two experts, an ob-gyn and a pelvic floor physical therapist, about exactly how vaginal dilators work, when they're recommended, and more.
What Are Vaginal Dilators?
Due to their long, cylinder-like shape, vaginal dilators share a slightly similar resemblance to sex toys. However, these devices are purely designed for medical use and should only be used after recommendation from a medical professional.
According to Rachel Gelman, DPT, INTIMINA's pelvic floor health expert, vaginal dilators help to decrease pelvic floor muscle tension, decrease sensitivity at the vaginal opening, and improve the flexibility of the vaginal canal.
What Conditions Can Vaginal Dilators Help Treat?
Vaginal dilators can be used to treat a few different health conditions and issues, but one of the most common is sexual dysfunction caused by estrogen deficiencies, like during menopause.
As Lucky Sekhon, MD, ob-gyn, reproductive endocrinologist, and infertility specialist, explained, low estrogen levels can cause the skin of the vagina to thin, be less lubricated, and atrophy, which in turn can make sex particularly painful. According to resources from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, this vaginal issue may also result after certain cancer treatments. The use of vaginal dilators in these instances help stop the vagina from narrowing or losing its elasticity.
Vaginismus is another condition where vaginal dilators might be beneficial. According to Dr. Gelman, vaginismus is when the pelvic floor muscles involuntary contract and make any type of vaginal penetration — like penis-to-vagina intercourse, tampon usage, or dildo usage — painful, difficult, or even impossible. During sex, some people who are experiencing vaginismus may also note that it feels like their partner is "hitting a wall."
"A dilator can be helpful to teach a person's muscles to relax in response to penetration," Dr. Gelman explained. "A person starts with a small dilator and gradually increases the size to match the size of whatever object they are working towards." This, for example, might mean an erect penis or a dildo.
Dr. Sekhon added that vaginal dilators might also be recommended for people who have had reconstructive surgeries or surgeries on their vagina.
Vaginal dilators should never be self-prescribed, though. Dr. Gelman said patients should always consult with a medical provider prior to using these tools, as certain symptoms might actually be due to other causes and would require different treatment plans.
Along with a medical provider's OK, Dr. Sekhon said those using vaginal dilators should follow up with their doctor to ensure they are using the device properly and aren't dealing with any problems, discomfort, or abrasions.