Pain during sex isn’t uncommon. It can range from a bothersome twinge that throws off your groove, to a more intense condition that becomes completely debilitating. If you’re dealing with below-the-belt discomfort, one reason might be something called vulvodynia, a chronic condition.
Vulvodynia generally causes burning, irritation or pain, and tends to affect women ages 18 to 25. It can cause specific pain – confined to the opening right around the vagina, or even the clitoris – while other women experience a more generalised aching of the vagina. Many women with the condition say it feels like “having acid poured on my skin” and “feeling a constant knife-like pain”. (Ouch.)
But what is vulvodynia exactly? “It’s essentially inflammation of the vulva – the opening of your vagina,” says Dr Leah Millheiser, director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University. “That’s an area of the body that has many nerve endings and sometimes those nerve endings don’t fire the right way. What that can lead to for many women is a sort of generalised burning or irritation.”
Read more: Are you experiencing painful sex? You could have dyspareunia
There’s two different categories of the condition, says Dr Millheiser. “It can be either provoked, meaning you touch the area and the pain starts, or it can be unprovoked, which means you could be lying in bed and have this burning pain for no reason.”
Dr Millheiser notes that although vulvodynia is actually pretty common, no one talks about it, so many women are left in the dark about what’s going on with all that pain down there. If you think you may have vulvodynia, here’s what you need to know about the condition, and how to deal if it’s messing with your lady parts.
Read more: These two treatments will change your life if you experience painful sex
What’s the cause?
So what causes the redness and chronic burning or pain when you’re touched? The answer isn’t so simple.
“The first question I ask is do you use birth control pills or have a Nuva ring,” says Dr Millheiser. “Women who started the pill before the age of 16 are nine times more likely to develop provoked vulvodynia than women who have never taken the pill.”
Why? Birth control alters the levels of oestrogen and testosterone in your body, which can be a cause of vulvar pain.
Environmental factors can also be to blame. If you have sensitive skin (like if your skin freaks out when you try a new cleanser) your vagina is probably extra sensitive, says Dr Millheiser. Scented pantyliners, soaps, lubes and even detergents can all cause irritation down there.
Vulvodynia can also be caused by a nervous system disorder. “Interestingly we see a lot of women who have interstitial cystitis (also called painful bladder syndrome), who also have vulvodynia because it has to do with abnormal nerve function in that area,” Dr Millheiser says.
Read more: 12 reasons why you’re experiencing painful sex
How is it treated?
If you’re on the pill, switching to an IUD might be your first move. If vulvodynia is getting in the way of your sex life or relationship, that’s an issue, says Dr Millheiser.
Secondly, try ruling out environmental issues by switching to perfume-free soaps, detergents and period products. Your doctor might also suggest taking a break from wearing tight jeans or workout leggings – extra rubbing down there can exacerbate the problem.
Switching up your diet might also solve the issue. Cutting down on oxalates (foods like spinach, nut butters, potatoes) has been linked to zapping symptoms of vulvodynia, according to the Vulval Pain Society.
Beyond that, steroid creams and oral medications can be used to help curb the painful symptoms.
Read more: These are the three symptoms of vaginismus, a painful sex disorder
What should I do if I’m having vaginal pain?
“Not all women will get this – you have to have a genetic predisposition – but it is quite common,” says Dr Millheiser. “Women experience vulvodynia differently. There are women who’ve learnt to deal with it and push through, and there are women for whom it’s completely debilitating.”
Step one: Talk to your gynae about any pain, irritation or burning – during sex or otherwise – STAT. “If you’re experiencing new onset vulvar pain or burning you need to be evaluated by your doctor because you need to be ruled out for a yeast infection or herpes,” says Dr Milleheiser. “If you’re avoiding sex and relationships because of pain, that’s where it’s really important to come in and seek help.”
Vulvodynia unfortunately becomes a chronic issue for many women, she adds, so if it’s not getting any better, it may be time to go beyond your regular gynae and see someone who specialises in vulvar health. In many cities, these docs can be found at university medical centres. Your gynae can also refer you to a specialist.
Looking for more? Here are four things you should never put up your vagina.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com