It’s easy to take sex for granted as a healthy person. For people who have vaginas, it means easy lubrication, pleasure during penetration, no allergic reactions to condoms, lubricants, etc., and generally being able to have sex that is pleasurable and fun.
Imagine if every time you tried to have penetrative sex, you had to stop. The intense pain is like stabbing, burning, or pinching. Once you stop touching your vulva, though, the pain stops. It may also happen when trying to insert a tampon, or during a PAP test.
This condition is called vulvodynia, and it’s as common as asthma (7.8% of people in the U.S. have asthma, according to the CDC.) About 8% of people with vaginas will develop primary (from the first time they have sex) or secondary (later in life) vulvodynia.
“Most women will think it’s a yeast infection and try to treat their symptoms that way”, says Dr. Leslie Sadownik, OBGYN and director of the BC Centre for Vulvar Health.
The problem? Yeast infection treatments will only make the pain worse.
Another issue, Dr. Sadownik explains, is that it’s difficult to diagnose.
“There’s nothing to see. There’s no objective change to the skin. Many doctors are not familiar with this condition, and without any visual signs, they will not make a diagnosis.”
It can get worse with age.
Untreated vulvodynia can get worse with age. It goes from pain from direct genital contact only to pain from activities like cycling or exercising; eventually it’s difficult for those people to wear anything close to the skin, like underwear – or even pants. It can develop into something called “burning vulva syndrome,” or generalised vulvodynia, where the vulva is intensely painful most of the time. Yikes.
Doctors don’t quite know the cause for vulvodynia yet, but there are a few treatment options available. Most of them are related to pain management: medication that reduces the feeling of pain, physiotherapy to learn to control the body’s physical reactions to pain and improve pelvic floor strength, and pain management psychotherapy. Some people may be candidates for surgery, but only in a small percentage of cases.