There’s a lot of discussion about the average length of an erect penis (5.5 inches), but little attention is given to the average length of a vaginal canal.

That may be because, as with many things related to the vagina, much is misunderstood or left up to myth and urban legend.

The average vaginal canal is 3 to 6 inches long, or about the length of your hand. But this isn’t static — the actual length may change throughout the day.

For example, if you become sexually aroused, your vaginal canal grows longer. This allows your cervix and uterus to lift up and away from the canal so that penetration will be more comfortable.

The vaginal canal undergoes many changes, and no two are same. Each person’s length, shape, and size are different. All of this is normal.

And unless you feel any pain or discomfort, everything is likely fine.

If you’re experiencing discomfort, it may not be the result of a “shallow” vagina. It could be caused by an underlying condition that makes penetration uncomfortable.

Read on to learn more about why this happens and how you can find relief.

You may think uncomfortable penetration is only a side effect from sex with someone who has a penis.

However, that’s not the only time that penetration may be painful.

For example, you may experience discomfort when trying to insert a tampon, menstrual cup, or sex toy.

Other symptoms may include:

  • resistance as you attempt insertion
  • increasing discomfort
  • deep pain with movement or thrusting
  • burning or aching in the vagina and groin area
  • throbbing pain that remains while the item is inserted or during intercourse

This could be caused by:

What you can do

If uncomfortable penetration isn’t the result of an underlying health condition, you may be able to remedy the pain and discomfort on your own.

  • Use a smaller size. If your menstrual flow isn’t comparable to the tampon or cup size, it may not provide enough lubrication during insertion. The same goes for sex toys — bigger isn’t always better.
  • Slow things down. Taking your time will allow your mind and body to prepare for insertion. If you’re with a partner, talk about what you’re feeling. You may need more time with foreplay to become sufficiently aroused and produce enough natural lubrication for penetration.
  • Apply lube. Lube can reduce friction and make penetration easier. You may find it helpful to rub a little on the outside of your vagina, as well as onto the object you’re inserting.
  • Try to relax your muscles. If you experience discomfort during insertion, you may be tensing up your muscles. This is more likely if you’ve had previous issues and anticipate discomfort.
  • Try a different position. This may take a bit of experimenting, so consider it an opportunity to try new things. If you aren’t already, angle your menstrual product or toy toward the small of your back rather than straight up inside the body.

If this is the first time insertion or penetration hasn’t worked, it may be not be cause for concern.

In the realm of mind-over-body, your mind may be preventing your body from engaging in otherwise normal activity.

But if you frequently experience discomfort or had an issue with insertion before, consider making an appointment with a doctor or other healthcare provider.

In some cases, this may be due to scarring, muscle tightness, or another physical condition. It could also be the result of previous trauma or other underlying mental health condition.

Your provider will ask you about your symptoms and medical history to help determine the underlying cause.

From there, they’ll work with you to develop a care plan designed to ease your symptoms and allow for easier insertion or penetration.

What you can do

Your provider will work with you to develop a care plan tailored to your individual needs. They may recommend one or more of the following.

  • Pelvic floor exercises. The vaginal canal is a long muscular tube. Like any muscle, it should be exercised regularly. If it’s not, it may not behave as it should. This may make penetration uncomfortable or entirely impossible.
  • Sex therapy. If you have underlying concerns about sexual intimacy, you may find it helpful to see a sex therapist. They may be able to help you talk through your thoughts and experiences.
  • Medical treatment. In some cases, underlying medical conditions make penetration difficult, if not impossible. Your doctor may recommend topical creams, oral medication, or other treatments to help relax your muscles and allow for easier insertion.

After discussing your symptoms, your doctor may diagnose one of the following conditions.

Vaginismus

Vaginismus is an automatic bodily response. Your vaginal muscles involuntarily constrict just as you’re trying to insert something, such as a tampon, finger, or toy.

This condition is usually treated through a combination of pelvic floor exercises and sex therapy.

This two-step approach can help you learn to relax your pelvic muscles, as well as work though any underlying stressors that you may be experiencing.

Your doctor may also recommend using a vaginal dilator to help your body become more comfortable with penetration.

Tilted uterus

The uterus is a small organ that sits just above the vagina. It usually points forward toward the abdomen.

But in almost one-third of people, the uterus tilts toward the spine. This is known as a tilted, tipped, or retroverted uterus.

A tilted uterus doesn’t shorten the length of the vaginal canal, but it may make insertion or penetration difficult. Penetration from behind and deep thrusting may be especially uncomfortable.

Your provider may be able to recommend different angles or positions to try during sex or other penetration.

In some cases, certain exercises may help to correct the position of the uterus. In severe cases, surgery may be discussed. Your doctor will advise treatment options based on your unique case.

Vaginal stenosis

Vaginal stenosis is a condition that causes scar tissue in the vaginal canal.

As a result, the vaginal opening and canal may become shorter and narrower. This may ultimately make penetration more difficult, if not impossible.

Vaginal stenosis is often the result of radiation therapy. Likewise, surgeries and injuries can cause scar tissue in the vaginal canal.

Treatment focuses on keeping the muscles pliable and preventing stiffness. To do this, your doctor may recommend using a vaginal dilator and practicing pelvic floor exercises.

You may also benefit from added lube, as vaginal stenosis can reduce natural moisture.

MRKH syndrome

Individuals born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome have an underdeveloped or absent vagina and uterus. They may, however, be born with intact female genitalia and female chromosomes.

Some people with MRKH syndrome may not know about the missing or underdeveloped sex organs until they’re older. For example, the first sign may be a lack of menstruation during puberty.

These variations may cause pain or discomfort during penetration. It may make sexual intercourse impossible.

Your doctor may recommend dilation techniques to help “stretch” the vaginal canal to average length. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to create a vaginal canal.

Pain or discomfort with penetration can happen from time to time. However, if the discomfort interferes with your daily life or penetration becomes impossible, you should make an appointment to see a doctor.

Your provider will likely conduct a physical exam to rule out any underlying conditions, such as an infection, that may make penetration painful.

Once the underlying cause is clear, your provider will work with you to develop a care plan that will alleviate your symptoms and help ease any apprehension.