Elena Scotti/FUSION

Five years ago, Tara Langdale-Schmidt's life changed forever. Until then, she'd enjoyed a healthy sex life. But suddenly, out of nowhere, intercourse became unbearable for the now 31-year-old.

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"I began to feel little pains in the entrance to the vulva," she told me over the phone. "I didn't know what it was." The vulva is the external opening to the vagina, and what had started out as a pin prick of discomfort soon became a nightmare of sexual agony. "You try to have sex, but then it hurts so bad you have to stop,” she said. “Then, eventually you just start to shy away from it.”

Tara, like many afflicted with a mystery ailment, first sought medical attention from an array of conventional doctors—from her OBGYN to physicians specializing in pelvic pain. But none, she told me, were able to diagnose her issue. The first said to "take some Advil and drink wine before sex.” Things got more discouraging from there. She continued to seek consultations from specialists near her hometown of Sarasota, Florida, but the options looked bleaker and bleaker. "I was told we could cut out the part that hurts, or I could take antidepressants to see if that helped," she said.

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Tara knew she didn't want to undergo surgery or take drugs that could potentially suppress her libido, but she also didn't want to live with painful sex. So she turned to Google. After extensive research, she was convinced that she suffered from vulvodynia, an understudied condition that causes pain in the vulva and affects tens of millions of women in the United States alone, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Armed with this insight, Tara returned to her OBGYN, who confirmed that she did, in fact, suffer from vulvodynia—but explained that the condition has no known cure. Even though she had a diagnosis, she felt little relief. That's when she decided to take matters into her own hands. Literally.

In September 2013, Tara had an idea. Years before her current problems, she had been in a critical car accident that resulted in terrible neck and back pain. As part of her recovery, she placed neodymium magnets on her neck and back. These specific magnets are a type of rare “earth magnet” thought by some in the alternative medicine community to have analgesic qualities. “They helped so much,” Tara told me.

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While science has yet to explain why some people report that magnets lessens their pain, many folks—and online resources—swear by them. According to the BBC, the global sale of therapeutic magnets is close to $1 billion per year—despite the fact that a 2006 review of research on magnet therapies concluded that they offer nothing more than a placebo effect. Likewise, back in 2000, The New York Times reported that the studies that have been conducted on magnet therapy are either inconclusive or poorly designed.

“Most studies purporting to show positive results either lacked a placebo control or could not be sure patients were unaware of who was wearing real magnets,” the Times explained. “In a study of back and knee pain among 54 patients in Texas and Alabama who were treated with quadrapolar magnet therapy or a look-alike placebo, in just one day those receiving magnet therapy experienced significantly greater pain relief. But the researchers said that ‘patient blindness’ to who received which treatment ‘cannot be assured,’ because patients could use a paperclip or safety pin to determine whether the devices they were wearing were real or fake.”

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Similarly, a small study from 2013 looked into magnetic pain relief for rheumatoid arthritis and found that experimental magnetic bracelets had no more effect on the participants than non-magnetic bracelets, weak magnetic bracelets, or copper bracelets—leading the authors to conclude that any pain relief was placebo effect.

But for Tara, the pain was severe enough that she was willing to try just about anything—including applying magnet therapy to her vagina. "My exact words were 'I'm gonna slap a magnet on my crotch," she told me. When she told her husband about her plan, he suggested she put the magnets in a dilator—a dildo-like device used to treat various vaginal conditions, which stretches the pelvic floor muscles. Tara and her husband reasoned a dilator would make it easier for her to access the source of the pain.

From there, Tara constructed a homemade magnet-dilator and began inserting it into her vagina two times a day, for 20 or so minutes at a time. The results, she told me, were dramatic. "Within two weeks I could have sex with a 60% reduction in pain." When she began using the dilator right before sex, she noticed the biggest improvement. “Literally at the end of sex I was crying because, for the first time [in years], it didn't hurt."

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Knowing how many other women suffer from vulvodynia, in 2014, Tara founded a company called VuVatech to mass produce her homemade dilator, which hit the market last year at $289 a set. I first learned of Tara’s story though the company's launch.

VuVatech's neodymium magnet kits sell for hundreds of dollars.
via vuvatech.com

In a double-blind clinical trial conducted in 2015 by the Sarasota-based medical group Physician Care Clinical Research, under the guidance of an OBGYN named G. Michael Swor, 80% of the 24 women participants reported a reduction in overall pain after using the dilators. The average reduction of pain was about 28%. And 40% reported an increase in sexual frequency while using the dilators, compared with only 10% using a placebo.

While Swor is unaffiliated with VuVatech, according to Tara, the results of clinical trial have not been published in any peer-reviewed journals, and the trial was in fact funded by VuVatech—so for now, its findings should be taken with a big grain of salt.

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According to Tara, however, the best evidence has been in the results from real women. "We have gotten feedback and it's all positive," she said. Tara says she has sold more than 1,000 dilators since July 2015, and her website is filled with gushing testimonials from women thanking her for restoring their sex lives.

But can a magnet really produce such stunning results?

🌺🌺🌺

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Regardless of whether Tara is selling a miracle cure or a modern-day snake oil, the condition she has set out to fix, vulvodynia, is real as day—and one that often goes untreated.

A recent study on vulvodynia conducted by researchers at Sweden's Lund University and Helsingborgs Hospitals noted that 40% of women who experience the condition suffer in silence—and among those who seek medical treatment, 60% visit three doctors or more without a diagnosis. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health echo these findings, remarking that the evidence “suggests that many women either do not seek help at all or go from doctor to doctor seeking a diagnosis and treatment without receiving answers.”

"Vulvodynia encompasses a collection of complaints such as pain, tingling, or burning in the vulva," said Lennox Hoyte, a VuVatech board member and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of South Florida. "But usually, we end up with a diagnosis of vulvodynia if we don’t have another diagnosis. Meaning we don't have cancer, cuts, cysts, or any of the other usual culprits."

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Even among highly trained medical professionals, vulvodynia is something of a mystery; its cause, or causes, are largely unknown. “It’s a diagnosis of exclusion,” Maura Rabin, an OBGYN in New York, told me, pointing out that the cause could be anything from genetics to infection to chronic inflammation to nerve pain. “We may not understand it, but it’s a real pain syndrome."

Since symptoms can differ from patient to patient, treating the condition can be extremely challenging—a grueling process of trial and error for every patient, despite the fact that, according to the NIH, at least 9% to 18% of women experience it in their lifetime.

"Some doctors say ‘let's biopsy,’ others say ‘let's treat it with steroids to bring down the inflammatory reaction,’ others say ‘let's cut out the hurting tissue.’ Others want to inject lidocaine [a numbing agent]," Hoyte told me. "There's a wide spectrum of invasive things that people do, including surgery, and sometimes we try so many because so many fail."

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Given these invasive options, the notion that women's pain could potentially be lessened with magnet therapy is exciting. But much more research is still needed.

So what do the magnets do, exactly? The theory is that the magnets somehow block or weaken the pain signals from the nerves to the brain. But even Hoyte admits that the mechanism behind the pain relief is unknown: "What maybe is happening is that the magnets are stimulating the nerves, altering blood flow, and changing how muscles behave, so the pain signal is attenuated."

"In nearly 100% of cases with vulvodynia, we can’t find anything wrong with the tissues themselves," Hoyte explained. "It’s kind of like phantom pain. So we're trying to deal with signal transmission." If you can interrupt the pain signal, you can maybe also stop the pain.

An anatomical diagram of how therapeutic magnets allegedly work.
via vuvatech.com

And of course, even if magnets do somehow alleviate pain for some women, it doesn't mean they will work for everyone. In reporting this story I reached out to several women’s health specialists for insight into the treatment’s potential, but since the product is not FDA-approved, most doctors were reluctant to comment.

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So why are women buying into the magnet mystique? The power of the placebo effect should not be dismissed. “People are willing to do anything because they are so frustrated,” explained Edward Michna, head of pain management at Brigham and Women's Hospital, when I asked him about magnet therapy in general. “That being said, I do not believe there is good scientific evidence of any effect of magnets in relieving pain.”

At least no evidence beyond a placebo effect. “Of course, if people really believe a therapy will work, they can have a placebo response to the treatments,” Michna said, echoing what so many studies have found when it comes to magnet therapy. (None of Michna’s patients have reported using magnets to successfully treat their pain.)

For now, women suffering from vulvodynia or pain in their vulva should seek medical attention. "Women shouldn’t feel less-than because they have a complaint their doctor can't explain, but they also shouldn't self-diagnose," Hoyte said. "Get a diagnosis of vulvodynia and then find the treatment that works best for you.”

As for Tara, she says the pain during sex is nearly gone. She's now hoping her story will inspire other women with vulvodynia interested in trying an alternative approach to their pain.

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“It’s a silent epidemic that people don’t talk about," she said. "But the number-one thing is to not give up.

Being in pain doesn’t mean you’re broken.”

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Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.