Everyone has heard of weight lifting with weigh machines or free weights, like barbells, dumbbells and even kettlebells, but now there’s a new kid on the block. Vaginal weights are coming to a store near you. No, I’m not making it up. Just like traditional weights, vaginal weights exist to exercise and build up muscle groups. In this case, the muscle group in question is a rather intimate one. Vaginal weights were created to exercise the pelvic muscle groups responsible for tone in the vagina and surrounding structures.
While vaginal weights may sound like a joke, the problem they are designed to treat is anything but. The weights, used in conjunction with special exercises, are designed to treat stress urinary incontinence (SUI). SUI is leakage of urine when the pelvic muscles are stressed such as when coughing, sneezing or laughing. It is much more common among women than men, and some estimates suggest that as many as one in three women will suffer from SUI at some point in her life.
SUI is often associated with pregnancy, but in that case, it is usually self-limited; after the baby is born, the incontinence will stop. More commonly, it is associated with aging, particularly in women who have given birth in the past. The ligaments and muscles that support the pelvic organs stretch in response to pregnancy and childbirth. After menopause, when the ligaments and muscles tend to weaken even further, the bladder and uterus may slip down (prolapse) into the vagina, distorting the normal relationships necessary to control bladder function. The difference is typically not noticeable at rest, but anything that increases pressure on the bladder, like coughing or sneezing, allows urine to leak out beyond muscles that are too weak to hold it in.
As you might imagine, SUI is embarrassing and inconvenient. When actress June Allyson made those television commercials encouraging women to “get back into life with Depends,” she was talking to women with SUI. In the intervening years, pads of all different types and sizes have been introduced. SUI is so common that the pads are sold next to the tampons in the feminine hygiene section of the grocery store. Many women find pads an unsatisfactory compromise. These women, and women who develop more severe SUI, oft opt for surgery to repair the weakened ligaments. The uterus is usually removed because it is often dragging down the bladder with it, and it is much easier to permanently prevent incontinence after it is gone.
Surgery is, of course, the most drastic treatment. Before women opt for surgery, they are often advised to perform Kegels, exercises designed to strengthen the pelvic muscles surrounding the vagina, uterus and bladder. Kegel exercises, named after Dr. Arnold Kegel, involve contracting and relaxing the muscles of the pelvic floor, as described on the Mayo Clinic website:
To make sure you know how to contract your pelvic floor muscles, try to stop the flow of urine while you’re going to the bathroom. If you succeed, you’ve got the basic move. Or try another technique: Insert a finger inside your vagina and try to squeeze the surrounding muscles. You should be able to feel your vagina tighten and your pelvic floor move upward. Then relax your muscles and feel your pelvic floor move down to the starting position…
Once you’ve identified your pelvic floor muscles, empty your bladder and sit or lie down. Then:
· Contract your pelvic floor muscles.
· Hold the contraction for three seconds then relax for three seconds.
· Repeat 10 times.
· Once you’ve perfected three-second muscle contractions, try it for four seconds at a time, alternating muscle contractions with a four-second rest period.
· Work up to keeping the muscles contracted for 10 seconds at a time, relaxing for 10 seconds between contractions.
Women are advised to perform sets of 10 Kegels, 3 times a day. That’s where the vaginal weights come into the picture. The reasoning is that if contracting the pelvic muscles builds muscle tone, contracting them against resistance (the vaginal weight) should build muscle tone more effectively. According to GlysBy, the makers of a particularly colorful set of vaginal cones:
If a cone is inserted into the vagina, it tends to slip out again. It is then prevented from slipping out by repeated muscular reflexes (“bio-feedback phenomenon”) and, throughout the course of exercising, by increasingly conscious muscular contractions. Drawing together and tensing the muscles of the pelvic floor trains and strengthens these muscles, similar to body building with weights. Exercising may thus at first give rise to sensations of pain in the pelvic area (muscular soreness). At the same time, however, awareness of the pelvic floor will be improved.
How does a woman use the vaginal weights?
The woman starts by testing the strength of her pelvic floor. This can be done by inserting the yellow (lightest) cone deep into the vagina. Should she be able to keep this cone in place for approx. 1 minute in a standing position, she may try the next heavier cone (green first, then blue and purple last). The cone that she can only just hold shows you how strong your pelvic floor is and she should start exercising with this cone.
The woman should exercise at least twice a day in a standing position or when walking. At the beginning she may only be able to hold the cone for a very brief period. The exercising time should be increased gradually until the cone with which you are exercising can be held for approx. 10 minutes per exercising session for several days in succession. Once this stage has been achieved, she may exercise with the next heavier cone.
In theory, using the vaginal weights should be more effective than Kegels alone, but the reality has proven somewhat disappointing. According to a 2007 Cochrane Review, Weighted vaginal cones for urinary incontinence:
Fifteen studies, involving 1126 women of whom 466 received cones, were included. All of the trials were small and in many the quality was hard to judge. Outcome measures differed between studies, making the results difficult to combine. Some studies reported high drop out rates with both cone and comparison treatments… Cones were better than no active treatment. There was little evidence of difference between cones and PFMT [pelvic floor muscle training/Kegels] … There was not enough evidence to show that that cones plus PFMT was different to either cones alone or PFMT alone.
Despite the lack of improvement over muscle exercises alone, vaginal weights have become a big business, with many different manufacturers and websites selling the cones. According to the makers of the Stepfree vaginal cones: “It’s never too soon to start a program of prevention with vaginal weight.” That’s almost certainly an exaggeration. There appears to be very little scientific evidence that Kegels or vaginal cones can prevent the development of SUI. There is evidence that one or the other can improve symptoms of mild SUI. So women who truly want to exercise ALL muscle groups, might consider adding vaginal weights to their exercise routine.