Rarely a day passes that Ellen Barnard, owner of A Woman’s Touch sexuality resource center in Madison, doesn’t get a call from a woman with a very common problem: vaginal dryness that makes sex uncomfortable and even painful. Area health care providers call Barnard with referrals, too. It’s a problem faced mainly by post-menopausal women due to hormone loss. But it also affects those who’ve just had a child or who have undergone surgery or treatment for a disease such as cancer that’s thrown their hormonal balance out of whack.
Since Barnard and center co-owner Myrtle Wilhite opened the store in 1996, they’ve developed various methods using common products such as vibrators and lubricants to help motivated women treat the problem, clinically known as vaginal atrophy.
In fact, they’ve been the only game in town offering drug-free treatment through their “vaginal renewal program.” Physicians prefer to prescribe hormone replacement therapy or estrogen gels, Barnard says. But some women don’t want to go that route because the long-term effects aren’t clear.
“This is a big need,” Barnard says. Nationwide, some 55 million women a year go into menopause—that’s 2,000 women a day, thanks to the Baby Boomer generation’s entry into post-fertile life. And about half of them report dryness, lack of stretch and moisture in the vagina or genital area, and pain during sex or even pelvic exams.
“We’ve got this huge wave of women who have grown up saying ‘I don’t want to lose my sex life. I want to have a healthy, intimate life connection with my partner and my own body,’” she says.
That gap between complaint and effective care prompted the entrepreneurs to do something beyond piecing together items from their store that often work well, but aren’t specifically designed for the job.
So they invented something that is.
After nearly two years of intensive research, development and testing, their FeMani Wellness Wand, an FDA-approved medical device, will be available for purchase starting in March this year.
The wand will retail for $89.95 and is meant to stimulate desiccated vaginal tissue through touch and vibration, which helps restore blood flow and, therefore, moisture, so vaginal tissue stretches easier and doesn’t tear.
Manufactured by Madison company bb7, the device comes with wands in two sizes. And even though it may seem expensive to some—compared to a vibrator—it’s a high-quality device that’s expected to last much longer, Barnard says.
“There are so many things that we can do that make the transition [into menopause] go well and go easily,” Barnard says. “And this is one of them.”
Already, Barnard says women’s sexuality stores and local and national health care providers are waiting for the product to hit the market.
Marta Staple, a nurse practitioner at Meriter’s West Washington clinic, says some women might not even report pain with intercourse due to emotional or cultural barriers. And those same barriers might prevent them from going to a store—even one as upscale and welcoming as A Woman’s Touch—to purchase any kind of device.
But, says Staple, “I like to remind women that the vaginal wand and vibrating products should be seen as tools for massage. When a muscle group in the shoulder or back is causing pain, massage is often a reasonable option for helping to release the pain and promote healing.”
– Marni McEntee