What is a Pessary?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “pessary” is used in three different ways; the meaning is usually clear in the context. In the first sense, a pessary is a supportive device which is inserted into the vagina or rectum to treat a variety of medical conditions. A pessary can also be a pharmaceutical preparation which is used to deliver drugs rapidly through the mucus membranes of the anus or vagina. Finally, some people refer to birth control devices as pessaries, although this use of the word is not very common.

A pessary might be inserted into the rectum or vagina for medical treatment.
A pessary might be inserted into the rectum or vagina for medical treatment.

The word comes from the Ancient Greek pessarion, a word which referred to a piece of medication-soaked wool or lint which was inserted into the vagina. The Greeks used pessaries with the goal of preventing pregnancy, and some Greek women also used them like modern tampons. Historically, all sorts of peculiar things were put into vaginal pessaries to treat medical conditions which were specific to women.

Some medications must be delivered vaginally or anally to be most effective.
Some medications must be delivered vaginally or anally to be most effective.

In the sense of a supportive device, a pessary is most commonly used to treat uterine prolapse, a condition in which the uterus slides into the vagina, causing discomfort and medical complications if it remains untreated. Prolapse is caused by a weakening of the pelvic floor muscles, which normally hold the uterus and other organs in place. A pessary is used to support the uterus, holding it firmly in place so that it will not slip. Pessaries are also used to treat incontinence and prolapse of other organs.

Greek women used vaginal pessaries like modern-day tampons.
Greek women used vaginal pessaries like modern-day tampons.

Typically, a doctor must fit a pessary, since he or she is involved in the diagnosis of the condition which requires a pessary. There are a number of styles available, along with an assortment of sizes, and a doctor may try several fits before finding one which works. After a pessary is inserted, the patient receives care instructions which may involve periodic removal and cleaning or checkups to assess the patient's condition and to make sure that the device has not drifted.

Several doctors' appointments may be needed to fit a vaginal pessary properly.
Several doctors' appointments may be needed to fit a vaginal pessary properly.

A pharmaceutical pessary is made by blending drugs with a substance which will dissolve in the warmth of the body. The drugs will slowly leach through the porous membrane of the vagina. When used in the rectum, a pharmaceutical pessary is better known as a suppository; suppositories are sometimes used as alternatives to pills and injections. Some medications must be specifically delivered vaginally or anally to be most effective.

A pessary may be used to treat incontinence.
A pessary may be used to treat incontinence.
Pressary is most commonly used to treat uterine prolapse.
Pressary is most commonly used to treat uterine prolapse.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Pippinwhite

I'd heard of a pessary being used to treat uterine prolapse, but had no idea they were ever used to treat incontinence. Wonder how that works?

I always thought of a pessary as a sort of medieval or Victorian method of treating some disorders, but I suppose it has a use in modern medicine, too. Very interesting.

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