Two years ago, a Missoula health clinic became the first in Montana to apply a new laser application to treat gynecological issues commonly experienced by post-menopausal women and breast cancer survivors.

Yet despite the medical success of MonaLisa Touch and its ability to restore vaginal health, Five Valleys Urology fears the treatment remains relatively unknown, preventing many women from leading healthy, confident lives.

“A lot of the ladies, especially post-menopausal, they're in that age group where they don't talk about those things,” said Whitney Martin, a physician assistant at Five Valleys. “When you deal with trouble like vaginal pain, pain with intercourse or incontinence, people are very embarrassed or have shame with it. They try to hide it. We want to change that and we can fix that.”

Five Valleys Urology began offering the laser treatment two years ago at its North Reserve Street clinic. In that time, it has treated hundreds of patients from across the region.

But because the treatment is still new in the U.S., Martin said, many doctors and a greater number of patients don't know it exists.

“The primary population for that treatment is post-menopausal females, so it's most ladies over the age of 50, in addition to breast cancer survivors,” said Martin. “We've also treated people in their 30s who have suffered due to chemotherapy and some of the medications associated with breast cancer.”

MonaLisa Touch Therapy, as it's known, is used to address a number of issues related to female health. Among them, Martin said, it can be used to cure mild incontinence, along with vaginal dryness resulting from a loss of estrogen.

A decline in estrogen is part of aging and is common among post-menopausal women, Martin said. But it can also result from breast cancer treatment, where estrogen production is intentionally slowed.

“One thing that's done during breast cancer treatment, you want to try and reduce the amount of circulating estrogen, so the medications stop that or they undergo surgery to reduce their circulating estrogen,” said Martin. “Essentially, as a result, they go through premature menopause, but it's the estrogen that keeps the vaginal tissue healthy and elastic.”

Without estrogen, Martin said, the vaginal tissue dries and weakens, causing pain during intercourse. That can bring psychological impacts, such as reduced confidence and a loss of intimacy.

“Every lady who goes through treatment and gets rid of their estrogen or is going through menopause where estrogen drops will experience that,” she said. “It just depends on the person how bothersome it is and for some, it's severe to the point it impacts their relationships.”

The application of vaginal estrogen can still be used to address some issues. But Martin said it can't be used for breast cancer survivors since it places the patient at an increased risk of recurrence.

The laser can be used in both situations since it doesn't impact estrogen levels. The direct application takes roughly 20 minutes and is pain free, Martin said.

“What the laser does, it stimulates cells that are sitting there – it brings them back to life," she said. “Those cells are healthy and they secrete like a normal cell, which increases lubrication. The laser stimulates the growth of collagen and elastin, so you have overgrowth of more healthy tissue and stimulation of blood flow to keep that regrowth of healthy tissue.”

According to the company that manufactures MonaLisa Touch, the laser gently acts on the vaginal walls, creating the tiny micro-lesions needed to trigger the generation of new collagen.

Since its debut, the process has emerged as an effective non-surgical, drug-free treatment for vaginal atrophy and its aftereffects, which many women experience during menopause and after childbirth.

It can also be used to treat mild incontinence, Martin said.

“I have patients who cry and tell us how life changing this is,” she said. “All the problems with female health are under-discussed and under-diagnosed. It's sad, because there's so many things that can be done to make that better for ladies.”

Five Valleys Urology is holding a free public health seminar on the MonaLisa Touch on Tuesday, Nov. 14, from 5:30 to 7 pm, on the 6th floor of First Interstate Bank in downtown Missoula.