If you have pain in your vulva, you’re not alone. Around 16 per cent of women will have vulvar pain lasting longer than three months. They aren’t neurotic or promiscuous. It’s likely they are suffering from a condition called vulvodynia.
Only people with a vulva can develop vulvodynia, but that’s where the discrimination stops. The condition occurs in women of all ages and ethnicities, regardless of education, skin type, sexual preference or relationship status.
The pain can be brutal and is commonly described as stabbing, burning or knife-like. It might happen only when the vulva is provoked, as when it’s touched by clothing or attempted penetration, or it can be constant. Not surprisingly, vulvodynia can severely impact a woman’s quality of life.
Vulvodynia and its costs.
About half of our species has a vulva, yet surprisingly few know what, or where, it is. The vulva refers to the external genitalia of females: the clitoris, labia, vaginal opening and Bartholin’s glands, which provide the natural lubricant for the vagina. It has a rich supply of specialised nerves and gives pleasure when properly stimulated.
The vulva doesn’t extend to the vagina itself, which, contrary to common parlance and high-profile art exhibitions, is on the inside, not the outside.
Watch: Dr Ginni Mansberg on what makes a vagina “normal”. (Post continues after video.)
Putting “-dynia” on the end of a word refers to pain. Vulva means, well, vulva. So vulvodynia literally means “painful vulva”. If you have pain in your vulva anywhere from your clitoris to your anus and labia to very inner thigh, and there is no clear injury or ongoing infection, then you have vulvodynia.
Three out of every 20 women will develop vulvodynia at some point and the cost can be profound. Sufferers often struggle to wear underwear, sit down or use tampons.
Women with vulvodynia often suffer through sex. Some find ways to end their relationships when the pain becomes too unbearable. They can be so embarrassed about their condition they don’t mention it to their partner or tell them it’s the reason they want to separate.
And when it comes to economic costs, extrapolating from a United States study, vulvodynia costs Australia more than A$2 billion per year.