Hymens are pieces of tissue located at the opening of vaginas. Many people are born with a hymen, and there are different hymen types out there. In fact, no two hymens are the same, and the size, shape, and thickness of a hymen vary from person to person.
Here’s what you need to know about the hymen.
What Is the Hymen?
Located at the opening of your vagina, a hymen is a small and thin piece of tissue formed during the developmental phase of pregnancy from leftover embryonic tissue. Usually, the hymen’s structure is ring-shaped at birth, but the hymen can change shape over time
Though the absence of a hymen is generally known for being a sign of sexual activity, it is actually not a good indicator of whether a person has had sex or not. In fact, the hymen is soft and elastic and usually doesn’t block the vagina’s opening. Since hymens are made of soft tissue, they can break or tear from simple activities such as inserting a tampon.
What Is the Hymen’s Purpose?
Unlike other tissues and organs that have jobs to do, the hymen has no purpose. It does not impact your body or reproductive system or health.
Some do believe that hymens act as a shield to keep bacteria and other small, foreign objects from entering your body, but there is no scientific evidence to support that. As far as the hymen function is concerned, there is little to no evidence that it provides any benefits or functionality to your body.
Where Is the Hymen Located?
Most of the time, the hymen surrounds the opening of the vagina. Sometimes, though, it will cover only the bottom of the opening.
Hymens have two different designations depending on where they are located. These terms are:
- Annular: Annular hymens surround the entirety of the vaginal opening.
- Crescentic: Crescentic hymens are shaped like crescent moons and only partially cover the vaginal opening.
Newborns are generally born with annular hymens, but these hymens change to crescentic hymens around the time they reach elementary school.
Rarely, the hymen can cover the entire opening of the vagina for a long time, which can cause problems with menstruation and even sexual intercourse.
What are the Types of Hymens?
There are four different hymen types, also known as variants, or conditions, that you should be aware of. These variants are:
- Imperforate Hymen: This is a rare hymen type that occurs when the hymen does not open up and instead covers the vaginal opening completely. This can cause a blockage of menstrual blood and secretions. While this type of hymen can be detected at birth, it is usually diagnosed during puberty. The symptoms present themselves in an adolescent, preventing menstrual periods. There is also usually abdominal and pelvic pain involved. Oftentimes, the patient may also experience urinary issues such as frequent and urgent urinating and feelings of the bladder remaining full even following urination.
- Microperforate Hymen: This hymen type is diagnosed when the hymen has a smaller-than-average opening. While menstruation can happen in spite of a microperforate hymen, the patient may be unable to insert tampons or have intercourse. In some instances, teens who do not realize that they have a microperforate hymen may be unable to remove an inserted tampon.
- Cribiform Hymen: This condition is a result of many small openings occurring in the hymen. Menstruation can occur normally, but the patient won’t be able to insert tampons or have intercourse vaginally.
- Septate Hymen: This hymen type happens when an extra band of tissue has formed around the hymen, resulting in two small vaginal openings as opposed to one. The patient can menstruate normally but may be unable to use tampons or have intercourse vaginally. Similar to the microperforate hymen, if a teen does not realize they have a septate hymen, they may be unable to remove an inserted tampon.
The treatment for these variants is a minor procedure and happens on an outpatient basis. The treatment is referred to as a hymenectomy, and a gynecologist will work to remove any excess tissue, creating an appropriately-sized vaginal opening. After the tissue has been removed, there is no risk of it growing back.
This procedure can be performed either in the office or in the operating room, depending on how much tissue needs to be removed, as well as the comfort level of the patient. The procedure is simple and straightforward, and little to no pain is involved during the recovery process.
What Happens When a Hymen Breaks?
When your hymen breaks, you may not even realize that it has happened. Some people immediately know, and others don’t. Like many other tissues, your hymen is elastic and can be stretched, and it usually doesn’t tear or break on the first impact. Instead, the hymen breaks when it becomes worn down.
When that does happen, you’re unlikely to feel a sudden pain. In fact, most people will feel nothing when their hymen breaks, though some may feel slight pain and experience light bleeding. In general, though, the hymen breaking is not a painful process. Those whose hymen eventually breaks over time and experience bleeding may even think that the bleeding is merely from their period.
Once your hymen has broken, it will not grow back.
How Does a Hymen Break?
As mentioned before, inserting tampons can cause a hymen to tear or break. So can sexual intercourse. However, there are plenty of other daily activities that can cause your hymen to break, too. These include:
- Riding bicycles
- Horseback riding
- Climbing on playground equipment like jungle gyms
- Pelvic exams or pap smears
If you’re wondering whether or not your hymen is healthy, the issues will likely present themselves during puberty. If there are issues with your hymen, you may find yourself unable to insert tampons or have sexual intercourse. In some cases, you may not observe your period at all, though this is rare.
You may also be wondering whether or not your hymen is still intact. The only way to tell if you still have a hymen or not is to use a mirror to examine yourself. Your hymen will appear as a piece of tissue at the bottom of your vaginal opening.
If you notice light spotting or extra skin around your vaginal opening, or if you’re experiencing discomfort, your hymen may no longer be there. There’s no need for panic if this happens, though, as it’s a normal occurrence and there are no risks involved from a broken hymen.
Sometimes, when hymens break, they retreat back into the vagina, or they remain as a small skin flap.