Aug 012016
 

Welcome back to Open Minded Health Promotion! This week we’re looking at health promotion for transgender men and individuals assigned female at birth. Depending on your history some of these tips will apply more or less to you.

TransgenderPlease remember that these are specific aspects of health in addition to the standard recommendations for everyone (e.g., colonoscopy at age 50). Based on your health and your history, your doctor may have different recommendations for you. Listen to them.

All transgender men should consider…
  • Talk with their doctor about their physical and mental health
  • Practice safer sex where possible. Sexually transmitted infections can be prevented with condoms, dental dams, and other barriers. If you share sexual toys consider using condoms/barriers or cleaning them between uses.
  • Consider using birth control methods if applicable. Testosterone is not an effective method of birth control. In fact, testosterone is bad for fetuses and masculinizes them too. Non-hormonal options for birth control include condoms, copper IUDs, diaphragms and spermicidal jellies.
  • If you’re under the age of 26, get the HPV vaccine. This will reduce the chance for cervical, vaginal, anal, and oral cancers.
  • Avoid tobacco, limit alcohol, and limit/avoid other drugs. If you choose to use substances and are unwilling to stop, consider strategies to limit your risk. For example, consider participating in a clean needle program. Vaporize instead of smoke. And use as little of the drug as you can.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. While being heavy sometimes helps to hide unwanted curves, it’s also associated with heart disease and a lower quality of life.
  • Exercise regularly. Anything that gets your heart rate up and gets you moving is good for your body and mind! Weight bearing exercise, like walking and running, is best for bone health.
  • Be careful when weight lifting if you’re newly taking testosterone. Muscles grow faster than tendon, thus tendons are at risk for damage when you’re lifting until they catch up.
  • Consider storing eggs before starting testosterone if you want genetic children. Testosterone may affect your fertility. Consult a fertility expert if you need advising.
  • Seek help if you’re struggling with self injury, anorexia, or bulimia. Trans men are at higher risk than cis men for these aspects of mental health.
  • If you have unexplained vaginal bleeding, are on testosterone, and have not had a hysterectomy notify your doctor immediately. Some “breakthrough” bleeding is expected in the first few months of testosterone treatment. Once your dose is stable and your body has adapted to the testosterone you should not be bleeding. Bleeding may be benign but it may also be a sign that something more serious is going on. Contact your doctor.
  • In addition, talk with your doctor if you have pain in the pelvic area that doesn’t go away. This may also need some investigation. And s/he may be able to help relieve the pain.
  • Be as gentle as you can with binding. Make sure you allow your chest to air out because the binding may weaken that skin and put you at risk for infection. Be especially careful if you have a history of lung disease or asthma because tight binding can make it harder to breathe. You may need your inhaler more frequently if you have asthma and you’re binding. If this is the case, talk with your doctor.
  • If you’ve had genital surgery and you’re all healed from surgery: there are no specific published recommendations for caring for yourself at this point. So keep in touch with your doctor as you need to. Call your surgeon if something specific to the surgery is concerning. Continue to practice safe sex. And enjoy!
Your doctor may wish to do other tests, including…
  • Cervical cancer screening (if you have a cervix). The recommendation is every 3-5 years minimum, starting at age 21. Even with testosterone, this exam should not be painful. Talk with your doctor about your needs and concerns. Your doctor may offer a self-administered test as an alternative. Not every doctor offers a self-administered test.
  • Mammography even if you’ve had chest reconstruction. We simply don’t know what the risk of breast cancer is after top surgery because breast tissue does remain after top surgery. Once you turn 50, consider talking with your doctor about the need for mammography. In addition, if you’re feeling dysphoric discussing breast cancer then it may be helpful to remember that cis men get breast cancer too.
  • If you have not had any bottom surgery you may be asked to take a pregnancy test. This may not be intended as a transphobic question. Some medications are extremely harmful to fetuses. Hence doctors often check whether someone who can become pregnant is pregnant before prescribing. Cisgender lesbians get this question too, even if they’ve never had contact with cisgender men.

And most importantly: Take care of your mental health. We lose far too many people every year to suicide. Perhaps worse, far more struggle with depression and anxiety. Do what you need to do to take care of you. If your normal strategies aren’t working then reach out. There is help.

Want more information? You can read more from UCSF’s Primary Care Protocols and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

Oct 122015
 
Human Papilloma Virus

Human Papilloma Virus

Little is known about reproductive cancer risks among cisgender lesbian and bisexual women. Cancer registries generally don’t ask about sexual orientation. Studies suggest so far that lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to get a pelvic exam and pap smear when it’s recommended. Pap smears help to detect cancer in its earlier, most easily treated and cured stages. Logically, lesbian and bisexual women may be at risk for having more developed (and potentially incurable) cancers. The data confirming that aren’t in yet, but it seems likely.

And now we have HPV vaccines. The human papilloma virus is a major cause of cervical cancer, along with anal cancer, penile cancer, and mouth/throat cancers. Human papilloma virus spreads by skin-to-skin sexual contact regardless of biological sex or gender. Along with pap smears, the HPV vaccine has been a great tool for preventing advanced cervical cancers.

This week I looked at a study of survey data from 15-25 year old women from the National Survey of Family Growth, from 2006-2010. They asked the questions: “Have you heard of the HPV vaccine?” and “Have you received the HPV vaccine?”

The results were rather spectacular. Lesbian, bisexual, and straight women had heard of the HPV vaccine. There was no difference there. However, 28% of straight women, 33% of bisexual women and 8.5% of lesbian women received the HPV vaccine.

That’s 8.5% of lesbians vs 28-33% of non-lesbian women.

Why?? Lesbians are at risk for HPV infection too!

Before looking at what the authors thought, I have some thoughts of my own.

2006, the earliest year this study had data on, isn’t too far off from when I graduated high school. I remember the sex ed class we had. We were lucky to have sex ed at all. It was a one-day class focused on the effectiveness of birth control options, how to put a condom on a banana (or maybe it was a cucumber?), and sexually transmitted diseases that can be passed between men and women in penis-in-vagina sex. There was no discussion of sexually transmitted diseases that are passed between men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women. I remember walking out of the class feeling confused and alone — what STDs were passable between women, and how can women protect themselves and their partners? Were there diseases that women could spread? Was protection warranted? I had no idea.

The study authors discuss similar problems and attributed the difference between lesbian HPV vaccine and bisexual/heterosexual HPV vaccine to misinformation. The idea that lesbian women who have never had sexual contact with men don’t need pap smears or HPV vaccines is old and incorrect, but still persists. I remember when pap smears were recommended starting at first sexual contact with men — if a woman never had sexual contact with a man then she didn’t ever need a pap, right? Wrong!

But it takes time to correct misinformation. As the authors correctly point out, important changes have happened since 2010. HPV vaccine is now recommended for all young people regardless of sex, sexual activity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It’s not just a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease — it’s a vaccine against some forms of cancer. Pap smears are now recommended for everyone with a cervix every 3-5 years or so.

So can you be part of the change? Help spread the word about HPV vaccine for *all* people, and pap smears for people cervixes!

The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The abstract is publicly available.

Jan 042015
 

8787343055_a2a6eb06bf_mIt’s a new year here at Open Minded Health. I hope you all had a safe, fabulous, and fun new years celebration. Here at OMH it’s time for the yearly questions and answers post.

For the unfamiliar — once a year I take a deep look at all the search queries that bring people here. Often, they’re questions that I didn’t completely answer or that need answering. So in case anyone else has these questions — there are answers here now that Google can find. The questions are anonymous and I reword them to further anonymize them.

This year is all questions about transgender health issues. There’s been a lot published and a lot in the news about trans health issues lately. This next year I’ll try to find other articles to post about too, though. 🙂

Questions!

What are the healthier estrogens that a transgender woman can take?

In order from least risk to most risk: estrogen patch, estrogen injection sublingual/oral estradiol, oral ethinyl estradiol, oral premarin.

But note that that’s an incomplete picture. The estrogen patch isn’t the best for initial transition and is very expensive. Injectable estrogen means sticking yourself with a needle every 1-2 weeks and needing a special letter to fly with medications. By far the cheapest of these options is oral estradiol.

Ethinyl estradiol is the form of estrogen used in birth control. Premarin is conjugated equine estrogens, meaning they’re the estrogens from a pregnant horse. Neither should be the first choice for transition. They’re both higher risk than estradiol.

For transgender women, how long does it take to see the benefits of taking spironolactone?

The rule of thumb is 3 months before changes on hormone therapy.

Where is the incision placed in an orchiectomy for transgender women?

That depends on the surgeon. But I’m know you can find images and personal stories on /r/transhealth and transbucket.

Does a trans man have to stop taking hormones to give birth?

Yes. Trans men and others who can become pregnant who are taking testosterone must stop testosterone treatment before becoming pregnant. Testosterone can cross the placenta and cause serious problems for the fetus. Once the child is delivered and no longer breast feeding testosterone can be resumed.

Once you’re on female hormones, how long does it take to get hair down to your shoulders?

My understanding is that the speed that hair grows doesn’t change. It grows at roughly 1/2 an inch a month. Expect growing it out to shoulder length to take 2-3 years.

As a trans woman on estrogen, are there foods I should avoid?

If you’re on estrogen only, there are no foods you should avoid. Instead eat a healthy varied diet.

If you’re on spironolactone you may need to avoid foods that are high in potassium. Potato skins, sweet potatoes, bananas, and sports supplements are foods you may need to limit or avoid. Ask your physician if you need to avoid these foods.

Is there a special diet that can help me transition?

In general, no. Any effect that food may have is, in general, too subtle to make a difference. The possible exception is foods that are very high in phytoestrogens — like soy. Phytoestrogens are chemicals in plants that act a little like estrogen in the body. There are a few case reports in the medical literature of people developing breasts when they eat a lot (and I do mean a lot) of soy. But they’re unusual. Ask your physician before you make radical changes in your diet. In general — just eat a healthy, varied diet.

I’m a trans guy taking testosterone and having shortness of breath. Do I need to worry?

See a physician as soon as you can. Shortness of breath may be a sign of something serious. Taking testosterone raises your risk for polycythemia (too many red blood cells in the blood), which can manifest as shortness of breath.

How often do trans women get injections of estrogen?

Most women have their injection every week to two weeks.

Can I still masturbate while I’m on estrogen?

Yes. Many trans women have difficulty getting or maintaining an erection though.

Can I get a vaginoplasty before coming out as transgender or transitioning?

Generally speaking, no. Surgeons follow the WPATH standards of care which require hormone therapy and letters of recommendation from physicians and therapists before vaginoplasty.

Are there risks to having deep penetrative sex if you’re a trans woman?

I’m assuming you’re referring to vaginal sex post-vaginoplasty. The vagina after a vaginoplasty is not as stretchy or as sturdy as most cis vaginas. It’s possible to cause some tearing if the sex is vigorous or if there are sharp edges (e.g., a piercing or rough fingernails).

Things you can do that might help prevent injury: Make sure you’re well healed after surgery. Dilate regularly as recommended by your surgeon. Use lots of lubrication, and try to go gently at first. Topical estrogen creams may also be helpful for lubrication and flexibility.

Is it safe to be on trans hormone therapy if you have a high red blood count?

Depends. If you’re a trans man looking for testosterone, you may need treatment first to control the high red blood cell count. Testosterone encourages the body to make more red blood cells, which would make the problem worse.

What kinds of injection-free hormone therapy are available to trans men?

Topical testosterone is available for trans men. It’s a slower transition and it’s expensive, but it exists and it works. Oral testosterone should never be used because of the risk of liver damage.

What can cause cloudy vision in trans women on hormone therapy?

Seek medical care. It could be unrelated, but changes to vision are not a good sign.

~~

And that’s it for this year! Next week we’ll be back to normal posts. 🙂

Aug 302014
 
Image of needle and syringe - click through to see source

Needles and syringes no longer look like this. Isn’t that wonderful?

Testosterone therapy for transgender men, and others who desire testosterone supplementation, typically involves intramuscular injections of testosterone. Intramuscular injections deliver the medication deep within a large muscle — typically a thigh muscle. From there the hormone can slowly work its way into the bloodstream to do its magic. Few other options exist, and those that do are either expensive or less effective (e.g., creams). Testosterone should not be taken as a pill because it’s very bad for the liver in that form. One possible alternative that has been discussed recently is subcutaneous testosterone injections.

Subcutaneous injections go just under the skin. Most people don’t get subcutaenous injections. The most common subcutaneous injection may be insulin injections for people with diabetes. Subcutaneous injections are also how fluids are given to cats in veterinary care.

Subcutaneous testosterone has been in sporadic recent use for trans men without any research showing how well it works. But that’s changed now with the publication of the article I’m going to summarize. 🙂 So let’s hop into it!

This was a study involving 36 male-identified trans youth from ages 13-24 (minors had parental consent). None had been exposed to hormones before. Hormone levels and other lab values were measured at the beginning and after six months.

For those interested in the specific technicalities of how the hormone was given, keep reading this paragraph. For those not, skip down to the next one! They were given testosterone cypionate suspended in sesame oil that was made at a local compounding pharmacy. The young men were given the injections by the clinical staff at first, but slowly taught to self-inject. Dosing was biweekly and started at 25mg per week, slowly increasing after that for some with a final dose ranging from 25-75mg.

So what did they find? How did it go? Positively!

About 92% of the young men in this study had testosterone levels in the “male” range at the 6 month check up. Similar goes for estrogen levels — by that 6 month check up their estradiol levels were down in the “male” range too. 85% of the young men who had been menstruating had stopped by that 6 month check up. Most periods stopped roughly around the 3 month mark. Other factors, like hemoglobin (red blood cell concentration) and cholesterol shifted but were not of clinical significance.

Two of the young men had allergic reactions to the sesame oil and were switched to cottonseed oil. This is a pretty well known reaction that happens in intramuscular injections too. Some also noticed small bumps around where they injected for a few days after injection. Those were the only reported side effects. Nobody reported unhappiness with their testosterone treatment method or asked to be switched to a different method.

All in all, a well put together study. Subcutaneous injection of testosterone so far appears to be a possible alternative to intramuscular injection. But it’s worth noting that commercial testosterone is intended for intramuscular injection and that type is not what was tested here. It may not be safe or effective to inject an intramuscular formulation as a subcutaneous one — ask your physician before changing how you use your medications!

As always: this is just one study. More need to be done to confirm these results. Regardless, I think these are good first results and look forward to seeing more.

Study was published in LGBT Health. Abstract is publicly available.

Disclaimer: I have personally met Dr. Olson (lead author of this study), worked with her in a small capacity, and have attended her talks at conferences. My interactions and impressions of her may have biased my interpretation on this study. However, I do my best to keep those preconceptions from affecting my judgment.

Nov 072013
 

Skin - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 - flickr user zorro-the-catSummary: A Belgian study of trans men found that type of testosterone given does not affect hair growth, acne, or balding, and characterized further the skin changes that happen with testosterone therapy.

This was a study of the skin quality of trans men, performed in Belgium. Why study this topic at all? Because some of the effects of hormone therapy for trans men are skin-related. The skin may get oilier, acne may increase, hair grows in places it didn’t before and gets thicker and rougher, and for some men they start to have male-pattern baldness or a receding hair line. These effects have also been seen in cisgender women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, where they have high levels of testosterone. Turns out, though, that it’s not so much testosterone itself that causes these effects. It’s dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which is made from testosterone. You can think of DHT like a super-powered version of T. This is why medications like finasteride can sometimes prevent hair loss, by blocking the conversion of T to DHT.

The WPATH Standards of Care estimates the following timeline for various skin-related changes from starting testosterone as such:

  • Acne increases in the first 1-6 months, peaking around 1-2 years on T
  • Body hair growth starts in 3-6 months, peaking around 3-5 years
  • Hair loss is highly variable, but would be expected to start after at least a year T.

So what about this study? What exactly were they looking at? This study looked at a long-acting form of testosterone which hasn’t been used in previous studies of trans men skin. Classically, hormone therapy for trans men is a weekly or biweekly intramuscular injection of testosterone cypionate or testosterone ethanate. Which testosterone you receive depends on the country (cypionate’s more common in the US), seed/nut allergies, cost, and personal/physician preferences. This study looked instead at testosterone undecanoate, which is given every three months. This study then asks two questions:

  1. Is there any difference in the effects of skin between testosterone undecanoate and the more common 1-2 week injections?
  2. What effects on skin can we see from long-term testosterone use?

To answer those questions the researchers did both a longitudinal and cross-sectional study. Remember, a longitudinal study is one where a a group of people is “followed” over a period of time. It provides a good picture of how things change over that time period, but can be expensive. A cross-sectional study examines people only once. It provides a lot less data but is cheaper.

For the longitudinal study they focused on testosterone undecanoate. They followed a group of 20 trans men over the course of their first year on testosterone (undecanoate), asking them back to do bloodwork and questionnaires every 3 months. For the cross-sectional study, they examined 50 trans men only once. These men were all post-hysterectomy/oophorectomy and had been on testosterone an average of 9.9 years (3.2 – 27.5 years range). 35 of them were on a mix of testosterone esters every 2-3 weeks, 7 were on testosterone undecanoate, and 8 were on topical cremes. Exclusion criteria were the usual, and quite reasonable: excluding those with endocrine problems, prolonged use of corticosteroids, and the like.

What did the researchers look at specifically?

  • Degree of hair growth on the lips, chin, chest, upper back, tailbone area, abdomen, arm, and inner thigh (“Ferriman and Gallwey” method)
  • Satisfaction with their hair growth patterns
  • Evaluation of acne, including the back/neck areas
  • Quantity of sebum production. Sebum is oil that skin produces.
  • Bloodwork, including: sex hormone-binding globulin, luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, estrogen, and testosterone

Results? Well let’s look at this one subject at a time…

  • Hair growth? For the longitudinal group, it appeared to increase most dramatically between 3-6 months. However hair growth appeared to continue to increase past that point. The type of testosterone did not appear to be associated with different levels of hair or satisfaction in hair amounts. There was a lot of variation in the fuzziness of the participants with some men not increasing their fuzziness at all.
  • Male pattern baldness? One person in the longitudinal group started balding in his first year. Among those on testosterone for more than a year, roughly a third has severe balding, a third had mild/minimal balding, and a third had no balding at all. There was not association between the type of testosterone and balding, though the older the man was the more likely it was he would bald.
  • Acne? For the longitudinal group, it was worst at 6 months but rapidly improved after that. At that 6 month mark, 82% of the men had facial acne. During the first year, roughly half of the men used various acne control products. For those in the cross-sectional group, roughly 1/3 did not have acne. 2/3rds had minor acne. 2/3rds of the group also had no acne scarring.
  • Sebum production? Was evaluated only in the cross-sectional group, and was not elevated. It also wasn’t associated with acne, or hormone therapy type/duration.
  • Bloodwork and hormone levels? No associations were found between any sex hormone levels and any of the skin factors measured (hair growth, baldness, acne, sebum)…. with one exception. In the cross-sectional group, estrogen levels were associated with hair growth. The authors are uncertain what that result might mean, and it may well be a fluke. Further research will have to find out.

But what does it all mean?! Well remember the original two things the researchers were investigating? Scroll up if you need to. Basically, it means that there doesn’t appear to be a difference in skin effects between the different types of testosterone therapy. And a trans man starting on testosterone can expect mild acne which peaks around the 6 month mark. Hair growth will accelerate the fastest during the 3-6 month period, but will continue afterward. But if he’s going to go bald, it likely won’t be in that first year.

Study limitations? The authors were pretty honest about the limitations of their measures. Some were subjective (e.g., the Ferriman and Gallwey method used for hair growth) and did not assess all areas that may change (e.g., buttocks and hair growth). They also point out the usual limitations inherit to the cross-sectional part of their study – it’s very hard to determine causes. I would also add the limitations in their sample size (relatively small), ethnicity/race (not reported, but nearly all participants were from Belgium). I also did not see them account for smoking tobacco in their study, though they did report the smoking rates (25-28%) of their groups. A number of potential variables were not reported on, such as hygiene or familial hairiness.

However I don’t see any glaring errors in this study, and it seems to have been respectfully done. Its language usage is certainly more respectful than many studies I’ve read about trans health.

This article was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Its abstract is publicly available.