An unusual form of gynecological health treatment is “gathering steam” around the country—pelvic steam baths, also known by the catchier name of vaginal steam baths. Although this is a new idea to most of us here in the US, this traditional therapy has long been used in Korea (where it is called Chai-Yok) as well as in parts of South America (where it is called Bajos).

While calling it a vaginal steam bath is definitely attention-getting, it is a misnomer, says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, Lac, a naturopathic physician and acupuncturist and author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health. The treatment focus is not on the vagina (an internal structure), but rather on the outer genital area called the vulva.

Dr. Steelsmith is a fan of using pelvic steam baths to relieve a number of troublesome complaints, including chronic vulvar pain (vulvodynia or vulvar vestibulitis)…muscle spasms (vaginismus)…post-childbirth discomfort, including pain from an episiotomy incision…or discomfort following a biopsy in the area. The steam baths soften and loosen the pelvic muscles, which can make sex more comfortable for some women, including after childbirth. They also help with vaginitis and yeast infections and promote healing after injury to the area.

Dr. Steelsmith urges patients with any of the above complaints to consider giving this therapy a try, describing the feeling it gives as “nourishing and cozy.” Some spas offer pricey pelvic steam baths, but you can easily do them at home.

To prepare…

  • Boil four cups of water. You can use the water plain, but many people like to add herbs or a little essential oil.
  • If you want to use herbs, you should boil the water for 10 to 15 minutes with the herbs in it. (Use a covered pot to minimize evaporation.) Herbs that are popular for the baths include oregano and basil. For a combination that is both soothing and nourishing, Dr. Steelsmith says to mix equal parts of dried chamomile, calendula (marigold), lavender and red clover.
  • If you prefer oil, add a few drops of a relatively gentle one (such as lavender or, if you have a yeast infection, tea tree oil) to the water after it boils. Avoid harsh oils such as camphor or eucalyptus.

To use…

  • Pour your brew into a stainless steel bowl and allow it to cool for about 10 minutes or however long it takes to reach a temperature that you find comfortable. You don’t want to burn yourself!
  • Place the bowl under a slatted patio chair in which you can sit wearing no underwear, so that your pelvic area is exposed to the steam. Alternative: Empty most of the water out of a toilet by turning its water supply off and then flushing it. Then put the bowl of hot water in the toilet (make sure the rim of the bowl is above the level of any remaining toilet water) and sit on the toilet seat. This allows the pelvic muscles and floor to relax completely, says Dr. Steelsmith, which improves blood circulation and therefore healing. Note: Wrap your lower body in a towel to hold the vapors in and capture the steam more efficiently.
  • Remain over the steam for 15 minutes, no more. Do this twice a day to treat infections or an episiotomy incision…for all other purposes, do once a day until the problem has resolved.