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Vibrators: From sex toys to medical devices

The stigma around vibrators should be removed and they should no longer be viewed merely as sexual objects, writes MedPage Today. A review of published literature showing they have positive effects on pelvic floor dysfunction and on urinary outcomes in women, among other positive benefits.

Though limited in number, the studies showed induced favourable changes in blood flow and muscle tone of genital tissues, improved multiple aspects of sexual arousal and satisfaction, increased orgasmic response, and decreased sexual distress.

In women with pelvic floor dysfunction, use of vibrators was linked to decreased urine leakage and urinary symptoms and significantly improved pelvic muscle strength. Other studies showed that vibrators decreased pain and improved sexual enjoyment in women with vulvodynia.

“Medical providers, especially gynaecologists, urologists, and FPMRS [female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery specialists] need more education on women’s sexual health and vibrators,” said Dr Alexandra Dubinskaya of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“We need to remove the stigma from vibrators. In our practice, we usually tell our patients to eat healthily, exercise, get enough sleep, and please use your vibrator,” she added.

Vibrators should be viewed as another form of technology that can be applied to benefit patients, said Dr Rachel Rubin of Georgetown University in Washington.

“We use technology to make our lives better … and the bedroom should not be absent of technology,” she said. “Sex tech is incredible … no longer just the seedy stores with newspaper over the windows, but high-end devices for couples, for all genders. There are so many health benefits.”

Therapeutic vibratory stimulation has its origin in the historical condition known as female hysteria, associated with excessive emotions and thought to be related to marital relationships, orgasm, and pregnancy, said Dubinskaya. Early practitioners who treated the condition used manual pelvic massage to bring women to orgasm, which was thought to reduce the emotionality.

“Because doctors’ hands were getting tired while providing pelvic massage to women who had female hysteria, they kept looking for methods to free their hands,” she said.

The search took practitioners to hydrotherapy with pelvic douches, a coal-powered flat surface with a rotating sphere in the middle for women to sit on, and finally to the first hand-held electric vibrators, which were also used to treat constipation, arthritis, muscle fatigue, and “pelvic congestion”.

Over the years, the association with potential health benefits became overshadowed by vibrators’ reputation as sex toys. Dubinskaya and colleagues sought to assess the evidence supporting the devices’ medical benefits in women, conducting a systematic literature review, focusing on studies related to sexual health, pelvic floor function, and vulvar health.

Of 558 abstracts of potential interest, 21 met all the inclusion criteria, consisting of 11 studies of female sexual dysfunction, nine on pelvic floor dysfunction, and one on vulvodynia.

From a science perspective, the studies of sexual dysfunction showed that vibratory stimulation facilitated vasodilation and blood flow, improved tissue perfusion and metabolism, decreased muscle tone, and increased relaxation. Clinically, use of vibrators was associated with significant improvement in the Female Sexual Function Index score (P<0.001), as well as increased arousal, orgasm, and genital sensation.

Patients who used vibrators reported increased sexual desire, satisfaction, and overall sexual function, as well as reduced time to orgasm, achievement of multiple orgasms, and reduced distress.

The studies of pelvic floor dysfunction showed that vibratory stimulation was associated with a significant reduction in use of hygienic pads among women with stress urinary incontinence and urine leakage, as well as a reduction in urinary symptoms.

Pelvic-floor muscle tone improved significantly, QoL improved as assessed by multiple scales, as did patient satisfaction with the treatment.

The single study of vulvodynia focused on vibratory stimulation for relief of pain and associated symptoms. Dubinskaya said that after 4 to 6 weeks of vibrator use, women reported antinociceptive and desensitising effects, reduced pain, and increased sexual enjoyment.

More than 80% of the study participants expressed satisfaction with the treatment, and 90% said they were comfortable with their doctor offering a vibrator as a form of therapy.

Enrolment has begun in a clinical trial to identify which conditions and which characteristics of sexual dysfunction benefit most from use of vibrators. Accrual will continue until the end of the year.


Medpage Today article – Good Vibrations: The Transition From Sex Toy to Medical Device (Open access)


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