What’s in a name? Many immigrants in America have either anglicized the spelling or outright changed their names as a way to smooth their transition to a new country and help others feel more comfortable with them, so perhaps it is obvious that medical conditions might similarly benefit from name changes.

Apparently, the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) and International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH) believe this to be the case. Members of both societies agreed the term genitourinary syndrome of menopause or GSM, for short — is both a medically accurate and publicly acceptable term to be used when describing what used to be called vulvovaginal atrophy. “The term 'GSM' will make discussing the problems so much easier, similar to the way 'ED' changed our ability to talk about impotence,” said Dr. Margery Gass, NAMS Executive Director.

ED, otherwise known as erectile dysfunction, affects an estimated 20 million men in the United States alone, with a prevalence rate of about 52 percent among men between the ages of 40 and 70. With so many men affected, a comfortable term was needed in order to allow easy conversation between doctors and patients. In other cases of medical name changes, a new term has brought greater clarity to a particular condition or disease. ALS (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), at the center of the Ice Bucket Challenge, was previously referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease" in honor of the exceptional baseball player who suffered from the disease and so brought international attention to the condition. As new generations had no memory of this superb athlete, this progressive neurodegenerative disease was eventually renamed and now reflects a more scientific understanding of the illness. Another example: “bipolar disorder” replaced the term “manic depression,” which had always lent an inappropriately emotional spin to this serious form of mental illness.

Which brings us to GSM, defined as a collection of symptoms and signs occurring during menopause and associated with a decrease in estrogen and other sex steroids involving changes to the labia majora/minora, clitoris, vestibule/introitus, vagina, urethra, and bladder. The syndrome includes genital dryness, burning, and irritation; lack of lubrication, pain, and impaired function during sex; and urinary tract infections. GSM affects about half of all postmenopausal women, so this means many women experience some or all of the signs and symptoms, yet too often they don't know treatments are available because they feel uncomfortable discussing the issue during their gynecology exams, which are, let's face it, not exactly comfortable and relaxing. Worse, only about one in 10 health care providers bother to mention the condition with patients.

And so a panel of menopause experts from NAMS and ISSWSH met at a consensus conference to hash out a new term that does not stigmatize women and is not too embarrassing to say. Plus, GSM addresses what previous terms — atrophic vaginitis and vulvovaginal atrophy — ignored; namely, that urinary symptoms accompany genital changes. After arriving upon GSM, the panelists also began to develop a tool to help standardize the physical examination to look for these physical changes. Soon, then, patients should be able to speak more easily, while providers will be able to make the diagnosis swiftly and accurately and get women the treatment they need.

Source: Portman DJ, Gass MLS, et al. Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause: New Terminology for Vulvovaginal Atrophy from the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health and The North American Menopause Society. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2014.