What is Vulvodynia?
Vulvodynia is a term for a condition that affects the vagina. When a woman suffers from vulvodynia, she has vaginal pain or discomfort of an unknown or unspecified origin. This is not a term that is applied to acute pain such as from an injury or a sexual encounter, but rather is a chronic pain condition with no easily identifiable cause.
Generally speaking, vulvodynia is a pain condition that occurs around the opening of the vaginal canal. However, the labia and clitoris can also be affected. It can become so uncomfortable for some women that sitting for prolonged periods of time is too much to bear. This condition can also make having a sex life difficult if not impossible.
Oftentimes, a woman will be suffering from vulvodynia and not receive a proper diagnosis. This is because many women do not seek treatment for such issues or are afraid to discuss them openly with their doctor. Vulvodynia was also not always recognized as a legitimate pain condition and was therefore dismissed or misdiagnose in the past.
There is no cause yet determined for vulvodynia. Some factors may contribute to the development of the condition, though. Women who suffer from vulvodynia may have allergies or extremely sensitive skin. They may also have a history of vaginal infections like yeast infections or may have nerve or hormone issues that cause pain in the vaginal area.
What are the Symptoms of Vulvodynia?
The most common symptom of this condition is pain. This pain may be an aching or throbbing pain or may be more of a stinging or burning sensation. Women may also experience chronic vaginal itching even if they have no infections or other reasons for the issue.
The vaginal area may also feel raw and sexual intercourse or contact of any kind may cause more pronounced pain. Vulvodynia can cause constant pain or intermittent pain that goes away suddenly and then returns.
Usually, there is no clear cause for vulvodynia, which can make it difficult to treat. In some instances, women may develop vulvodynia after suffering a slipped disc or other back problems. This is because the spinal nerve can become compressed and lead to referred pain in the vulval area.
One theory about the cause of the condition is that persistent infections, such as thrush or bacterial vaginosis, could cause the vulval tissue to be consistently irritated. Alternatively, the creams used to treat these types of infections may cause additional irritation to the skin and trigger vulvodynia.
Studies into vulvodynia have also suggested that women with the condition could have higher numbers of nerve fibers in the vulva than normal, and higher levels of chemicals in the body which can cause inflammation. Both of these things might explain an increased inflammatory response.
Women who experience other vulvodynia along other “unexplained” pain or symptoms may be suffering from an underlying medical condition.
Underlying medical conditions include:
- Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
- Interstitial cystitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
How is a Vulvodynia Treated?
A wide array of treatment options is available to help treat vulvodynia. Every woman responds to different treatments in different ways and what works for one woman may be unhelpful for another.
Self-care treatment methods for this condition can include doing away with potential irritants like scented soaps, detergents, fabric softeners, and the like. Lukewarm baths, using ice packs after intercourse, and using a water-based personal lubricant can also be effective options for self-care.
Medical treatments are also possible to treat this vaginal pain condition. Some of these treatments include topical estrogen creams or gels, tri-cyclic antidepressants, or local anesthetics among some other medications.
Nerve block injections:
Nerve block injections to prevent pain signals from being sent to the brain could also be helpful as could pelvic floor therapy (physical therapy) to strengthen supportive muscles. In severe cases of vulvodynia, especially those that cause pain that is localized to one specific spot or area, surgery may be necessary.
Since it is not understood what causes vulvodynia, there is no definitive way to prevent it. However, women may be able to prevent or reduce pain in the future by adjusting some lifestyle factors.
Firstly, using vaginal lubricants might help to reduce pain during or after intercourse as it will minimize friction and irritation. Secondly, it might be helpful to avoid using harsh soaps; some women may benefit from using emollient ointments to wash their genitals instead of a normal soap, as this will help to create a barrier across the skin to minimize future irritation.
Instances of thrush, bacterial vaginosis or other vaginal infections should be treated as quickly as possible to minimize irritation of the skin. It may be helpful to visit a doctor for advice on a suitable treatment which might be less likely to flare up vulvodynia symptoms, as over-the-counter treatments could cause added irritation.