Everything you need to know about imperforate, microperforate, and septate hymens
TL/DR: Hymens come in all shapes and sizes. For most, the hymen covers only part of the vaginal opening, becoming more flexible during puberty or eventually rupturing. In rare cases, however, the hymen may cover the entire vaginal opening (called an imperforate hymen). A hymenectomy is a procedure used to correct an imperforate hymen.
A hymen-what-tomy? An imperforate hymen? A septate hymen?
If your eyes just glazed over at some of those words, don’t freak out! We had the same reaction while researching this (like, what the heck does imperforate mean?). Let’s back up and pay a visit to our friend, Merriam Webster.
First things first: What is a hymen?
- hymen (1): a fold of mucous membrane partly closing the orifice of the vagina
- Hymen (2): the Greek god of marriage1
So, obviously, we’re talking about the first ‘hymen’ definition (but all about the fun facts – anyone else feel like their middle school curriculum purposefully left out the Greek god of marriage?).
You may have heard about the hymen in health class. It’s that thing on your vagina that gets broken during your first time having sex, right?
Not exactly. Turns out, not all individuals assigned female at birth are born with a hymen.2 And hymens can look totally different from one person to another. In rare cases, however, the hymen can become a more-than-inconvenient medical problem when you get your first period.
Read on to learn more about the mysterious hymen and find out what a hymenectomy is (and when it might be necessary).
Now that you know what the hymen is, let’s dig into some details. First – and this is important – if you’ve never found any traces of a hymen covering your own vaginal opening, that’s totally normal (more on this below).
On the other hand, if you have a visible hymen that covers part of the vaginal opening, that’s totally normal, too. Most hymens are shaped like the letter “C,” curving around the bottom edge of the vaginal opening (closest to your backside). Some wrap around the entire opening with one or even two small holes, called perforations – kind of like a paper snowflake. Some have multiple small holes. And some extend further over the vaginal opening than others.
Hymens that cover the entire vaginal opening are called imperforate hymens, and they’re relatively rare, occurring in only about 1 in 2000 individuals assigned female at birth.3 Hymens with a band of extra hymeneal tissue running vertically across the opening (creating a second perforation) are called septate hymens. And then there are microperforate hymens, which have only one very small opening, or perforation.4
What’s the point of a hymen? It’s not entirely clear.
Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, theorizes that the hymen was at one point “a prepubescent protective barrier for vaginas” 5, meaning it was there to protect the vagina from the many irritants of the outside world. She goes on to explain that while pubic hair, fat pads, estrogen, and labia minora all serve the purpose of protecting the vagina, these don’t develop until puberty. So, the theory goes that the hymen might be there to protect your vagina when you’re very young.
What we do know for sure is that hymens are an “embryological remnant” – meaning they originate before birth, when you’re still developing in utero – and that they come in lots of different shapes and sizes.6
Hymens & sex
As our bodies grow and puberty begins, the hymen thins and weakens. While it’s often thought that vaginal penetration is the only way to rupture or break the hymen, research has shown that this isn’t necessarily true:
Other physical activities can cause the hymen to rupture, including vigorous sport (like cycling and gymnastics) and accidental falls.6 To add to the confusion, sometimes, when the hymen is torn during childhood, it fully heals and returns to its original appearance.7
According to Dr. Gunter, “The hymen can tear from physical activity,” yet “approximately 50 percent of teens who report sexual activity still have an intact hymen.”8 So, it’s worth noting that your hymen may not necessarily break during penetrative sex. For some, it thins out enough that it doesn’t get in the way of sexual activity and stays intact into adulthood.6
When is a hymenectomy needed? And how is it performed?
So, what’s a hymenectomy? It’s a surgery performed to address an imperforate or microperforate hymen, either to remove the hymen completely or create an opening so that vaginal fluids and menstrual blood can exit the body normally. The procedure also typically involves the removal of any menstrual blood that’s been trapped in the vagina or uterus.9
How do you know if you have an imperforate hymen? It’s usually not noticeable until you reach puberty: In most cases, there are no symptoms until menstruation begins (but since the blood is trapped, it’s not obvious that it has begun). If you’ve experienced all the other physical signs of puberty – such as breast development, armpit hair, and pubic hair – but haven’t gotten your first period, your doctor may perform a pelvic exam to rule out an imperforate hymen.3
Other common warning signs include stomach pain, lower back pain, urinary retention (when it’s hard or impossible to pee), and PMS-like symptoms such as breast tenderness.3 If you’re noticing any of these symptoms and you’re still waiting on your first period, talk to your parent or guardian and ask to schedule a doctor’s appointment. It may sound scary, but an imperforate hymen is easy to treat!
Once a doctor diagnoses an imperforate (or microperforate) hymen, the next step is to find out the hymen’s thickness, usually via MRI imaging. A thicker hymen requires “surgical resection”, which is a fancy way of saying “surgery to completely remove the hymen.” If the hymen is thin, the hymenectomy only entails a “vertical incision,” or a simple surgical cut.10
A hymenectomy is a quick procedure: it’s over in a matter of minutes. Before the surgery, you’ll receive a local anesthetic to numb the area (so, don’t worry – you won’t feel anything!). If you have anxiety, your doctor may also be able to prescribe oral medication to help you stay relaxed before and during the surgery.11
As soon as the hymenectomy is complete, your doctor will apply sutures to prevent bleeding and send you home with a topical cream or ointment to apply for the next few days. The recovery time is minimal. Most patients avoid strenuous activity for only a couple of days before going back to their normal schedules. Any stitches will dissolve on their own; however, tampons, menstrual cups, menstrual discs, and penetrative sex should be avoided for at least two weeks.11
Hymenectomy: More than a winning scrabble word
If you made it through puberty, regularly have a period, and don’t have pain during sex, your hymen is probably long gone. Even if you’ve never had penetrative sex, you may not have a hymen – or you could be sexually active with a hymen that’s fully intact but isn’t getting in the way. Either way, it’s all good.
Problems only occur when the hymen covers enough of the vaginal opening that fluids – like cervical secretions and menstrual blood – have a hard time exiting your body. Make sure to talk to your doctor (or a parent or guardian) if you still aren’t getting your period despite having experienced all the other signs of puberty, or if you’re noticing any lower back pain, abdominal pain, or other PMS-like symptoms minus the actual bleeding.
If you do find out that you have an imperforate hymen, don’t stress! A hymenectomy is a quick, straightforward procedure with a short recovery time. Talk to your doctor for more information.
This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician.
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