March 8, 2014

When Sex is Painful: A Guide to Identifying & Treating Vulvodynia.


I have no idea who is on the cover of this month’s Cosmopolitian magazine, but I can pretty much guarantee that there is at least one article offering tips on how to be a better lover or how to drive a man wild in bed.

Cosmo is hardly alone in that. Pick up any women’s magazine and it’s the same: for all the talk and tips on how to be better in bed, discussions about pubic hair styles and even so-called “designer vaginas” achieved via labiaplasty surgery,  there is very little in the media about on a fairly common disorder call vulvodynia.

Vulvodynia, which is characterized by “chronic pain in the around the opening of [the] vagina (vulva) for which there is no identifiable cause”, can make sex incredibly painful. Author Suzanne Kaysen, who wrote about her experiences with the condition in her 2001 memoir The Camera My Mother Gave Me described it “as if someone put a cheese grater on [her] vagina and scraped it.”

If you’ve never never heard of it, then you are hardly alone. (I didn’t even know it existed until about a year ago and happened to hear it mentioned in a health lecture at the local university.) However, despite the fact it is relatively unknown to the majority of the public, it affects millions of women of all ages. In the US alone, approximately six million women or 16 percent of all women suffer from this ailment at any given time.

Even those who aren’t sexually active can suffer. In some cases, even going to the bathroom or using a tampon can be an experience in sheer agony.

It wasn’t until very recently that vulvodynia was even recognized as a legitimate condition. Many health care providers dismissed it as merely psychological or as means to get attention.

However, vulvodynia is a real condition recognized by the medical community. There is even funding for it for the National Institutes for Health even though critics point out that it woefully underfunded compared to other chronic pain conditions.

As in the cases of most medical conditions, the earlier one seeks treatment, the better the outcome.

Those who suspect that they might have vulvodynia may want to keep the following in mind when seeking treatment:

1. See a doctor who has experience treating this condition.

Depending on where you live, this can be easier said than done. Even many OB/GYNs have little to no experience with this condition. Your primary care doctor is good place to start. In fact, seeing them first is usually a good idea so they can rule out any other causes of chronic vaginal pain.

In some cases, the pain may not be vulvodynia, but a result of chronic vaginal dryness caused by pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, or some cancer treatments.  In many cases, all that is needed is a prescription hormone cream to make the pain go away.

Likewise, chronic yeast infections can also cause vaginal pain.

If, however, you do get a diagnosis and need to find a specialist, then check out the The National Vulvodynia Association.

2. Get support.

Speaking for myself at least, most of us aren’t too comfortable discussing our private parts with others. However, support is important for getting through this.

There are a number of support groups online. Also, some communities may have meet-up groups. If there isn’t one specifically for vulvodynia, then there may be ones for chronic pain sufferers.

Also, it’s important to share what is happening to your partner. As one woman living with the condition writes, it’s important to let them know what the condition is as well as what it is not: “[It’s] neither an STD or a sexual dysfunction. It’s also not the product of a low sex drive.” It’s important to let your partner know that this is not something they caused. If your partner is curious what it is like, then I suggest getting them a copy of the above-mentioned book by Suzanne Kaysen: The Camera My Mother Gave Me. In it, she not only chronicles her frustrations, but also that of her then-boyfriend who wanted to do something to make her condition go away but could not.

3. Give your body some extra TLC.

It can be easy to become dismayed or outright hate our bodies when we are in chronic pain, but body love is even important than ever.

If you can tolerate it, treat yourself to a massage, take soothing baths, and try to stay physically active.

Let go of the notion that your body is “broken” or “flawed.” Try to record something you still like or admire about your body each day even as you go through this. It may be challenging, but keeping a good mental image of your body may help you in your recovery.

Having vulvodynia is nothing to be ashamed of or to hide.

In the majority of cases, it can be successfully treated, and there are even cases where it may go away on it’s own. However, don’t wait for the latter to happen. Instead, seek treatment as soon as possible and if you should happen to encounter a doctor who tells you it is all in your head, then find another one.

Here’s wishing every the best, pain-free sex life possible.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant archives








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