Vulvodynia (“vul-vo-din-ee-a”) is chronic pain or discomfort of the vulva (the area surrounding the outside of the vagina) that lasts for three months or longer without any evidence of other skin or gynecological causes. Vulvodynia is usually characterized by burning, stinging, irritation or rawness of the area. The most common complaint is a burning sensation.
- Labia the folds just outside the vaginal opening
- Vestibule the portion of skin at the vaginal opening that contains the opening of the urethra, vagina and lubricating glands
- Perineum the area between the vaginal opening and the anus
Some women experience discomfort of the entire vulva area (generalized pain). Others have localized pain, which affects a specific part of the vulva, such as the vestibule or clitoris. Symptoms may be constant or come and go. The pain may be provoked by sexual and/or nonsexual contact (e.g., inserting a tampon, during a pelvic exam, wearing tight-fitting pants), unprovoked (spontaneous), or mixed (provoked and unprovoked).
Types of Vulvodynia
Vulvodynia affects the vulva, the external female genital organs. This includes the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening.
There are two main subtypes of vulvodynia:
Generalized vulvodynia is pain in different areas of the vulva at different times. Vulvar pain may be constant or occur every once in a while. Touch or pressure may or may not prompt it. But this may make the pain worse.
Localized Vulvodynia :
Localized vulvodynia is pain in one area of the vulva. Often a burning sensation, this type of vulvar pain is usually provoked by touch or pressure, such as intercourse or prolonged sitting.
Possible Causes of Vulvodynia
Doctors don’t know the cause of most forms of vulvodynia. And there is no evidence that infections, such as sexually transmitted diseases, cause vulvodynia.
Researchers are trying to find the causes of vulvodynia. They may include:
- Nerve injury or irritation
- Abnormal response in vulvar cells to an infection or trauma
- Genetic factors that make the vulva respond poorly to chronic inflammation
- Hypersensitivity to yeast infections
- Muscle spasms
- Allergies or irritation to chemicals or other substances
- Hormonal changes
- History of sexual abuse
- Frequent antibiotic use
The two types of vulvodynia are:
- Generalized vulvodynia refers to generalized, unprovoked vulvar pain.
- Vulvar vestibulitis is characterized by pain experienced when pressure is applied to the area surrounding the vaginal opening. In this case, the recurrent vulvar pain may be triggered by sexual activity, tampon insertion or gynecological exams, or when wearing tight-fitting pants or even when sitting.
It is estimated that up to 16 percent of women roughly 13 million will suffer with chronic vulvar pain at some point in their lives. Still, vulvodynia remains poorly understood and is often misdiagnosed.
Many women suffer with unexplained vulvar pain for months even years before a correct diagnosis is made and an appropriate treatment plan is determined. A Harvard study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that 60 percent of women who suffer from the condition consult at least three health care professionals in seeking a diagnosis, and 40 percent of those still remained undiagnosed. The study emphasizes how important it is for women to be persistent in seeking an accurate diagnosis so they can receive appropriate treatment.
While vulvodynia affects women of all age groups, the onset of symptoms is most common among women between the ages of 18 and 25. This risk drops significantly in those 35 years and older. Although vulvodynia was once thought to affect mainly Caucasian women, recent studies have shown that Hispanic and African American women are equally likely to develop the condition.
Causes and Risk Factors
There is no simple answer to the question, “What causes vulvodynia?” We do know that it is not caused by infection, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or other sexually transmitted diseases, cancer or neurologic disorders. It can only be diagnosed after other causes of vulvar pain, such as yeast infections, have been ruled out.
Early difficulty or pain when using tampons appears to predict those at high risk for future vulvodynia.
Research shows the following may contribute to vulvodynia:
- pelvic nerve damage or irritation
- spasms or weakness of the muscles that support the pelvic organs
- abnormal response of cells in the vulva to environmental factors, such as infection or injury
- allergies to certain detergents or soaps
- altered hormone receptor expression in the vulvar tissue
- genetic factors, including susceptibility to inflammation
- recurrent yeast infections
- previous laser treatments or surgery external to the vagina
Impact on Quality of Life
Vulvodynia can cause significant physical, sexual and psychological distress. Women who suffer with vulvodynia report difficulties exercising, being intimate and taking part in other daily activities. Even sitting for long periods of time can trigger vulvar pain episodes in some women.
According to an NIH-funded study done at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and reported by the National Vulvodynia Association:
- Seventy-five percent of women with vulvodynia feel “out of control” of their bodies.
- Sixty percent say the condition interferes with their enjoyment of life.
Almost two out of three (60 percent) cannot have sexual intercourse because of the pain. The sheer anticipation of vulvar pain can heighten anxiety and lead many women to avoid sexual intercourse. Refraining from sex not only affects a woman’s self-image, but it may also result in spasms of the muscles around the vagina (vaginismus), making it even more difficult to be intimate with her partner.
In addition, some women with vulvodynia may be burdened by other health problems, including interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders and endometriosis.
Lack of awareness about this condition, coupled with the stigma frequently associated with genital disorders, makes diagnosis and treatment more challenging. As a result, many women are left not knowing why they have such severe, often debilitating vulvar pain, which can strain a couple’s sexual relationship. Some women report being told the pain is “all in your head” by health care providers, who are often unaware that vulvodynia is a common medical problem in women with long-term vulvar pain.
If untreated, chronic pain can lead to:
And the severity of the pain can worsen when women with this condition are stressed, depressed or anxious.
Vulvodynia is poorly understood and, as with many pain conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose. Vulvodynia is diagnosed when other causes of vulvar pain, such as infections, skin problems or neurologic disorders, are evaluated and ruled out.
Women with vulvodynia often report having one or more of the following symptoms in the vulvar area:
- burning (most common symptom)
To make a diagnosis, your health care professional will begin by reviewing your medical history. He or she will ask you specific questions about your symptoms, treatments you may have already tried, your menstrual cycle, feminine hygiene, sexual history, previous medical problems or surgeries, as well as any medications you use (including over-the-counter medicines). You should also discuss any difficulties you have using tampons or having sexual intercourse. Your health care provider will then do a pelvic exam and carefully inspect your vulva. He or she may order blood tests and/or take a sample of discharge from your vagina to check for yeast or other infections that could be causing your symptoms.
A cotton swab test is often used to map vulvar pain. For this evaluation, your doctor will use a moist, cotton-tipped swab to place pressure on various parts of the vulva to identify the location and intensity of your pain. You will be asked to rate the extent of the pain at each site; for example, how would you describe the pain on a scale of 0 to 10 (no pain to extreme pain)? Your health care professional may use a diagram to visually note where you feel discomfort, as well as the degree and nature of the pain, such as burning, throbbing or stabbing.
Your doctor may use a large magnifying instrument (called a colposcope) to take a closer look at the vulvar skin. While there may be redness and inflammation, vulvar skin usually appears normal despite the occurrence of pain.
Describing Your Pain
Be sure to clearly describe your pain, including its:
- onset (When did the pain begin, and did it start gradually or all of a sudden?)
- location (Where do you feel pain? Is it isolated to a certain part of the vulva?)
- frequency/duration (When do you feel pain? Is it constant or does it come and go? How long have you had vulvar pain?)
- nature/type (Is it aching, burning, stabbing?)
- severity (On a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the worst pain you can imagine, how bad has your pain been?)
Explain how chronic vulvar pain impacts your daily life. Are there certain activities you avoid, such as exercise, use of tampons or sex? You may want to keep a pain diary with detailed information about your pain—when it occurs and for how long, things that make it better or worse and any other symptoms. This can provide important clues and will help your health care professional make a diagnosis.
There are treatments available to provide symptom relief. These may include a combination of advice on vulvar skin care, oral and/or topical medications, physical therapy and biofeedback training, dietary modifications, counseling and, in some cases, surgery. Adjunct therapies, such as acupuncture, massage therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, are also being explored.
The main goals of treatment are to manage your pain, improve your quality of life (e.g., restore a healthy sex life and reduce anxiety), and prevent the recurrence of symptoms. The chronic nature and complexity of vulvodynia often require multiple treatment strategies. Finding the right treatment or combination of therapies may take some time, especially because each woman’s symptoms and response to treatment are different. Your health care provider will recommend a treatment approach based on your condition(s), level of pain and preferences.
Available Treatment Options
The following section provides a snapshot of available treatments that have been beneficial in reducing pain symptoms (listed in no particular order):
Oral and/or topical medications, including topical anesthetics (lidocaine ointment), opioid pain killers (for temporary relief), estrogen, anticonvulsants, certain types of antidepressants and nerve blocks, may be prescribed for chronic pain.
Topical anesthetic ointments provide quick pain relief and comfort and may be used overnight or applied 15 to 30 minutes before sexual activity. Low doses of tricyclic antidepressants may be recommended to treat vulvodynia because of their pain-blocking properties, particularly amitriptyline (Elavil), desipramine (Norpramin) and nortriptyline (Pamelor).
For many women, the tricyclic antidepressants are the initial treatment prescribed. Gabapentin and pregabalin are often considered as additional agents. A newer class of antidepressants, known as SSNRIs (Effexor, Cymbalta), have also demonstrated benefit with fewer side effects for some women than the tricyclic antidepressants. Like the older tricyclic class of antidepressants, these medications can also help relieve symptoms of depression.
Ask your health care professional about various medications and their common side effects. When using certain medications, keep in mind it can take up to six to eight weeks for symptoms to improve, and that you will not necessarily achieve complete relief.
Basic Vulvar care.
Some common suggestions for vulvar care include:
- wearing cotton-only underwear
- avoiding tight-fitting pants and pantyhose
- using unscented cotton pads and tampons
- keeping harsh soaps and shampoos away from the vulva area and not using douches
- applying plain petroleum (Vaseline) after cleansing to hold moisture in the skin
- using plenty of water-soluble lubrication during sexual intercourse
- patting the area dry after rinsing and urination
Talk with your provider about the pros and cons of eliminating certain types of foods from your diet, such as those high in oxalates or sugar. To test for food sensitivity and to determine which foods, if any, are affecting you, eliminate one food or food group at a time. Use a food diary to record your results—you might begin to notice an association between your symptoms and certain foods you wouldn’t have otherwise suspected.
Biofeedback, which helps you enter a relaxed state to reduce pain, can help decrease vulvar pain by teaching you how to control specific body responses. To help cope with vulvodynia, you can use biofeedback to relax your pelvic muscles, which may contract in anticipation of pain, thus causing chronic pain. Try to find a biofeedback specialist with experience treating vulvodynia.
Some women may have associated spasms or weakness of the pelvic floor muscles. To determine what may be causing your vulvar pain, a physical therapist may evaluate your pelvic floor muscles, joints and nerves in the pelvic area. Treatments may include exercises, education, biofeedback and manual therapies, such as massage. Ultrasound, hot/cold and electrical stimulation may also provide some relief. Finding a physical therapist with experience treating vulvar pain will be helpful.
Relaxation and breathing techniques.
Learning to recognize when you are tensing your pelvic floor muscles due to stress and then learning specific relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety can help alleviate pain.
Vulvodynia can limit daily activities and diminish quality of life. It is not uncommon for women who suffer with chronic vulvar pain to experience depression and feelings of low self-worth. Some women find that psychological counseling helps them develop coping strategies and deal with sexual intimacy issues; for many, it is a valuable part of their overall treatment plans.
Neurostimulation and Spinal Infusion Pump.
If other treatment forms haven’t helped and your pain is severe, your health care professional may have you consult with a professional skilled in neurostimulation or in the use of a spinal infusion pump. With neurostimulation, an electronic device delivers low-voltage electrical stimulation to a targeted nerve or the spinal cord in an attempt to substitute a tingling sensation for pain. A spinal infusion pump is an implanted device that constantly administers a small dose of medication to the spinal cord and nerve roots to help dull pain.
Women with severe vulvodynia localized in the vestibule who have failed to find relief with other remedies, may consider vestibulectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the painful tissue of the vulvar vestibule. This surgery is usually reserved only for women with vulvar vestibulitis who have not responded to more conservative therapies and understand that, despite the surgery, the pain may not resolve afterward.
Because we don’t know what causes vulvar pain, we really don’t know how to prevent it. But there are some things you can do to help minimize your pain. As always, talk with your health care provider about what’s best for you.
Check your environment and follow basic vulvar skin care.
If your vulvar pain symptoms come and go, think about what that area is exposed to. Do you use a lubricant during intercourse? Have you switched laundry detergents? Are symptoms worse when you wear a certain kind of underwear or use a certain brand of sanitary pad? Try changing one thing at a time and see if it helps.
Don’t miss your annual exam.
Routine pelvic exams once a year for women age 18 and older are very important to ensure early intervention for problems, including chronic pelvic and vulvar pain. Annual gynecologic appointments may include breast exams, Pap tests and other important preventive screenings, such as cholesterol screening and thyroid tests. These visits give you the opportunity to discuss any gynecological concerns or symptoms with your provider.
If you experience vulvar pain, don’t wait. Make an appointment to discuss your symptoms with your health care professional.
There is some evidence that vulvar pain, though not necessarily vulvodynia, is associated with oxalates and other highly acidic foods, such as soda, wine, energy drinks, juice, tart candies, citrus fruits and foods containing vinegar, and foods high in sugar, such as candy, cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream and sugary drinks. Avoiding these foods may help improve your symptoms.
Facts to Know
- Vulvodynia is chronic pain or discomfort of the vulva (the area surrounding the vaginal opening) that lasts for three months or longer in the absence of other skin or gynecological disorders.
- Women who suffer with vulvodynia report burning, stinging, irritation and rawness in the area. For some, this pain affects the whole vulva, for others it is localized to one area. Pain may be constant or episodic, often when triggered by tampon insertion, sexual activity or exercise, especially bicycling.
- One study found that roughly three out of five women consulted three or more doctors in seeking an accurate diagnosis.
- It is estimated that up to 16 percent of women—roughly 13 million—will suffer with chronic vulvar pain at some point in their lives.
- There is no known cause of vulvodynia. However, we do know it is not caused by an active infection, including sexually transmitted diseases; skin disorders; cancer; or neurologic or psychological disorders.
- Diagnosis often includes a cotton swab test in which the doctor places pressure on different parts of the vulva area to locate the pain and its relative intensity.
- As with other chronic pain conditions, the unrelenting nature of vulvodynia, its negative impact on a woman’s quality of life and ability to perform daily activities and the challenges encountered in its diagnosis and treatment, may lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue and low self-image, especially related to a woman’s sexuality.
- The goal of treatment is to manage pain, restore normal activities, improve quality of life and prevent recurrence of symptoms.
- Treatment may include a combination of advice on vulvar tissue care, oral and/or topical medications, nerve blocks, physical therapy, biofeedback, dietary modifications, counseling and, in some cases, surgery. Many therapies recommended to promote general health may also be recommended with traditional medical approaches for people in chronic pain. These therapies include acupuncture, massage therapy, relaxation techniques, biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy.
- The aim of ongoing research is to determine the causes of vulvodynia and to find more effective ways to identify and treat chronic vulvar pain.
What is Vulvodynia?
Vulvodynia is chronic pain or discomfort of the vulva, the area surrounding the vaginal opening. It is diagnosed when pain lasts for three months or longer without any evidence of other skin or gynecological disorders that might cause the pain. Up to 16 percent of women—roughly 13 million—will suffer with chronic vulvar pain at some point in their lives.
Do we know what causes it? Is it due to an infection?
We don’t know what causes vulvodynia, although it is likely due to multiple factors. Some factors that may contribute are pelvic nerve damage, spasms or weakness of pelvic muscles and genetic components such as susceptibility to inflammation. We do know that vulvodynia is not caused by active infection, the human papillomavirus (HPV) or other sexually transmitted diseases or cancer.
What are the symptoms of vulvodynia?
Women with vulvodynia often report having one or more of the following symptoms around the vulva:
Burning sensations are most common; however, the type and severity of symptoms are highly individual. More than half of women who suffer with chronic vulvar pain have other health problems, including interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and recurring yeast infections.
What triggers the pain?
Some women experience constant, generalized pain of the whole vulva area. Others have localized pain specific to one part of the vulva that may come and go. Vulvar pain may be triggered by sexual activity, tampon insertion or gynecological exams, or simply by wearing tight-fitting pants or sitting. Take note of what things make your pain better or worse and share this information with your health care professional, so he or she has a better sense of the location and intensity of your pain and how it impacts your overall and sexual health.
How is it diagnosed?
Vulvodynia is a “diagnosis of exclusion.” That is, it is established after other potential causes of vulvar pain have been ruled out, including such things as yeast or bacterial infections. Most women see multiple health care providers before a correct diagnosis is made. To diagnose vulvodynia, your doctor will first take a complete medical history, including the duration and intensity of the pain, sexual health, treatments already tried and previous medical problems and pelvic/abdominal surgeries.
A pelvic exam will follow. A cotton swab test that applies pressure to various parts of the vulva is often used, especially for women whose pain is provoked by pressure on the vulva. You will be asked to rate the extent of the pain at each site so your provider can map your pain.It’s important to talk openly with your health care professional about any difficulties you have exercising, using tampons or having sexual intercourse, so he or she knows how the pain impacts your daily life.
What are the treatments for vulvodynia?
There is no cure for vulvodynia, but there are a variety of medications and nondrug therapies. Medications may include antidepressants, local anesthetics and nerve blocks, changes to your diet, counseling and, in select cases, surgery. You might also want to ask about acupuncture, massage therapy, relaxation techniques, biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy, which often are recommended as treatments for other conditions causing chronic pain. No single approach works for all women. It often takes time to find a treatment or combination of therapies that will adequately alleviate the pain.
What should I tell my partner?
Many women find it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in vaginal penetration due to the severity of what is sometimes described as “knife-like pain.” Since this condition significantly affects your sexual relationship, it’s important to educate your partner about this condition and how it affects you, both physically and psychologically. Be honest and open about how you feel, the steps you are taking to alleviate the pain and ways your partner can support you. You may feel embarrassed to broach the subject, but it’s important for your peace of mind and for your significant other to feel involved in the process. Counseling with a sexual therapist is often helpful for couples dealing with vulvodynia.
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