A lot has changed since I was 13 years old, but not everything. I still believe Kelly Clarkson’s album Thankful is a work of art, I still think bright blue eyeshadow is beautiful, and I still hate tampons with a fiery, burning passion. In fact, I vividly remember the first time I ever attempted to insert one. It was a daunting task, as I’m sure it was (and is) for many other tweens. I consulted my mom, my cousin, and a couple of my friends beforehand, but I still didn’t feel prepared. After a few attempts, I threw it away and opted for a pad instead. I didn’t try again until I felt like I had to, which was some months later when tragedy or fate or coincidence brought me my period on a beach day. Even then, I was uncomfortable, and it took me 15 minutes to figure it out.
To this day, I choose pads over tampons whenever possible, but when I hear others express their preference for tampons, it makes me feel weird, like maybe I’m still not doing it right or maybe I’m simply not built for tampon use. However, that changed a couple of months ago, when a friend told me that she also hates tampons, because they always seem to cause her discomfort, no matter what she does. Our conversation proved I wasn’t the only one, so I decided to do some research to learn more about this phenomenon and how to solve it. Here’s what experts had to say.
Why Do Tampons Hurt?
If like me you find tampons uncomfortable, it’s possible that you’ve hit one of these common hurdles:
- You haven’t inserted the tampon deeply enough. “A tampon should never hurt if properly inserted inside the vagina,” Sherry A. Ross, MD, author of She-ology and She-ology, The She-quel: Let’s Continue the Conversation, told POPSUGAR. “If the tampon is not inserted deep inside the vagina, it can be halfway in and halfway out, causing discomfort, especially at the vaginal opening.” Thus, the first step in avoiding any discomfort is making sure you’re guiding the applicator in until the finger grip is flush with the vaginal opening. This should ensure proper placement.
- You’re approaching it from the wrong angle. If you can’t put in a tampon in the first place, or you’re finding it uncomfortable to do so, you may be trying to push it straight up, instead of at an angle. “Aim back,” explained Heather Bartos, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn. “Not up. Never straight up.” If it’s helpful, she suggests laying on your back and aiming for the floor to get a feel for it.
Gynecologist Alyssa Dweck, MD, agreed that the angle of application is key. “Insure you are in a comfortable position — most people squat, sit on the toilet, or put one leg up on the tub, for example — for ease of insertion,” she told POPSUGAR. Dr. Ross recommends the latter. “This allows the angle of the vagina to be more parallel to the tampon, which makes insertion easier,” she said.
- The tampon itself is the problem. There are a few reasons this might be the case, the most common being that the tampon is simply too absorbent for your flow. “It’s best to choose the lightest absorbency tampon appropriate for your flow; otherwise, there can be a drying out of the tissue inside and discomfort,” Dr. Dweck said. “Another potential issue is fragrance in tampons, which can be irritating. Finally, the applicator can occasionally aggravate the vaginal opening; this is especially true for plastic applicators if one of the ‘petals’ is bent or protruding.” If any of these issues apply, try making the switch and see if that eases the discomfort.
- You need more lubrication. It’s easier to insert a tampon when your flow is at its heaviest. When it’s not, Dr. Bartos recommends adding lubrication, using either coconut oil or lube. Lightly apply either one to the tip of the applicator before inserting it.
Could Your Struggles With Tampons Be a Sign of Larger Problem?
If you spend any time googling questions about vaginal discomfort, you’ll find sources — some legit and some not — that suggest there’s a link between tampon-induced pain and painful sex. “Some people have a condition called vaginismus, which is like a chronic involuntary muscle tightness. This can make tampons and sex both very painful,” Dr. Bartos explained. However, she’s quick to point out that “tampons and sex aren’t always painful together,” for all the reasons listed above.
“Pain with tampon use and painful sex are usually two unallocated issues,” Dr. Dweck added. “First, during arousal of intimacy, natural vaginal lubrication is abundant and allows for pleasure, decreased friction, and no pain. There is minimal lubrication at the time of tampon insertion.” Apart from vaginismus, Dr. Dweck noted that there can be other physical causes of painful periods and sex. “Occasionally, pain at the vaginal opening could be due to an imperforate hymen — a residual membrane at the opening that you are born with — which can make for painful or impossible penetration with a tampon or sex,” she said. “This should be addressed by your gynecologist.”
If you’re experiencing painful sex, it’s important that you talk to your gynecologist about it. “There is a long list of causes of painful sex unrelated to tampon use,” Dr. Ross told POPSUGAR. If you try the advice here and still find using tampons outright painful, that’s worth a discussion with your doctor, too.