It’s not uncommon for these women to believe that the pain “is in their head” or that painful sex is normal and that it feels that way for all women. They might not even know that what they are experiencing has a name: vulvodynia, an unexplainable and often misdiagnosed condition marked by chronic pain at the opening of the vagina.
Research suggests that this vulvar disorder once believed to be rare actually affects between 8 and 10 million American women at any one time. Unfortunately, a lack of awareness among women – and even among many of their doctors – means it often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
Only 2 percent of women who have experienced ongoing vulvar pain seek treatment and many who do seek treatment are misdiagnosed. Some are mistakenly told to seek sexual therapy or explore relaxation methods and extra lubrication to alleviate discomfort.
My recent research on vulvodynia incidence further highlights the reality of this condition, with about 4 out of 100 women developing a new case of vulvodynia a year. Hispanic women were twice as likely to have the disorder, and those who had experienced painful sex, vulvar pain, depression, sleep disorders or other pain disorders were also more likely to develop the condition.
The location, constancy and severity of the pain vary among women so it’s important to ask your physician if you have experienced any of the following:
- A burning, irritation, or sharp pain near the opening of the vagina that may range from slightly uncomfortable to knife-like
- Vulvar pain experienced by activities like biking and other forms of exercise, tampon use, intercourse or even just sitting.
- A lingering pain after sex that may last just a couple of minutes or up to a couple of days, which indicates nerve pain
- A persisting, spontaneous pain at the opening to the vagina
- Repeatedly being treated for yeast infections or estrogen deficiency but symptoms persist
Medications by mouth, topical creams, and specific physical therapy are common treatments for vulvodynia but some trial and error is often required to find what works best for each individual.
For more information on vulvodynia, visit the National Vulvodynia Association website, talk to your doctor, or ask your doctor for a referral to a vulvar pain specialist.
Take the next step:
• Read other studies by Dr. Reed.
Barbara D. Reed, M.D., M.S.P.H., is a professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School and an international expert in vulvodynia and chronic vulvar disorders. Her clinical and research interests also include vaginitis, cervicitis, women’s health, general family medicine, and yeast infections.
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