What is Vulvodynia?
Vulvodynia refers to pain or discomfort involving the vulva. Women complain of uncomfortable sensations such as burning, stinging, irritation, stabbing, or rawness in the genital area.
- Vulvodynia is NOT a sexually transmitted disease or an infection
- Vulvodynia is NOT cancer
- Vulvodynia is NOT a skin condition
- Vulvodynia is NOT “in your head”
If the pain occurs regardless of whether the area is touched/provoked or not, then it is called Generalized Vulvodynia. If the pain occurs only when the area is touched (e.g., with sexual touch, tampon insertion, etc.), then it is called Provoked Vestibulodynia (PVD). If the symptom of pain occurs only in the clitoris, it is called Clitorodynia.
PVD is one of the most common causes of painful sexual intercourse.
Women with PVD experience a burning or rawness located at the opening of the vagina. The discomfort may be mild to severe and usually does not radiate. The pain interferes with sexual activities such as foreplay and intercourse. Because sex hurts, many women avoid sexual intimacy and this may have a significant negative impact on their emotional well being and their personal relationships. It can also be a great source of anxiety and frustration for the woman who may have had a period of pain-free sexual activities. Thus one disease impacts significantly on the quality of life of two people.
The pain may also interfere with day-to-day activities, such as wearing clothes, riding a bike or sitting for long periods of time. These women often describe “what feels like a yeast infection” one week prior to having their period, although vaginal cultures are inevitably negative. Women who have significant pain involving the anterior vestibule may complain of urinary urgency, frequent and painful urination. Some women have always had this discomfort (primary pain) and other women develop it after a period of no pain (secondary pain).
How common is Vulvodynia?
Community-based surveys report that 20% of women have significant vulvovaginal symptoms lasting over 3 months at some time in their lives.1 No one is really sure how common this pain condition is, however population based surveys estimate the prevalence of vulvodynia around 16%. Unfortunately, many physicians fail to recognize and diagnose this chronic pain condition. Women see numerous health care providers seeking a diagnosis and often try various treatments without any benefit. Specialty clinics that deal with this condition are often few and far between, with wait times that are unacceptable to both physicians and patients.
These unsuccessful interactions with the health care system result in women feeling frustrated, helpless and hopeless. The good news is that more and more people are hearing about this condition. Popular newspapers and magazines have featured articles about vulvodynia and now women can read about this condition and realize it is “not in their heads”!
References in text:
- Welsh BM, Berzins KN, Cook KA, Fairley CK. Mangement of common vulval conditions. Med J Aust 2003 Apr 21;178(8):391-5