The Little-Known Condition That Makes Sex Painful

If you've ever had pain during sex or physically can’t use tampons due to extreme pain and discomfort, there’s a medical condition you need to know about. Vestibulodynia affects up to 28 percent of all women between the ages of 20 to 40-years-old, yet no one really knows or talks about it. In a newly released study, researchers from the University of Oslo and Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences interviewed eight women currently being treated for vestibulodynia. While most people love to talk about how amazing sex is, many women out there are suffering in silence, feeling like they’re missing out, and are ashamed.

"I've always had pain during sex, ever since the first time," one 23-year-old woman from the study said. "It destroys your sex life in a way. He thinks, ʻAll I've done is to inflict pain on her.' So it's not something you want to tell your boyfriend."

Vestibulodynia causes a painful burning sensation at the opening of the vagina by touch or penetration. In one of the few qualitative studies that actually looked at how women experience their own disease, Karen Synne Groven and Gro Killi Haugstad interviewed eight women aged 23 through 32 years old.

One common issue among the women wasn’t just the physical pain they experienced during intercourse, but the emotional pain they feel when they’re not physically able to have sex without feeling discomfort.

Since many women don’t know that it’s an actual medical condition, many feel guilty of being bad sex partners.

According to the study, all eight women realized that something wasn’t right when they first had sexual intercourse. One woman said it was “impossible” to go through with penetration. Another thought she was “too small” or that she should’ve said no when she really didn’t want to have sex that first time. Then another thought she was just unprepared or not relaxed. Regardless of how the women felt the first time, the discomfort kept continuing and sex “never became comfortable.”

The researchers, who have treated nearly 100 women with the condition, say women don’t want to talk about it as if it were taboo. Previously, women were given medication for vaginal yeast infection. When they found that didn’t help, a new form of treatment was given.

Here’s what you should know about vestibulodynia:

1. There Are Two Main Subtypes Of Vulvodynia

Vestibulodynia is one of two types of vulvodynia, or problems occurring around the vulva. Generalized vulvodynia refers to pain in the vulva area and touch or pressure to the area may or may not cause it. Vestibulodynia, on the other hand, is a painful burning sensation in the entrance of the vagina that occurs only after touch or pressure is applied.

2. These Are The Symptoms

According to the Vuval Pain Society, the pain experienced by the condition is very individual, but the main issue for women is the hypersensitivity felt on even the lightest touches to the vestibule area (the part of the body where the vulva meets the vagina). Because of this, pain occurs during intercourse or even when putting a tampon in. The degree of pain felt varies from individual to individual. While some women may tolerate penetrative sex, for others, wearing tight clothes may cause soreness and tenderness. Although pain occurs upon touch, it’s important to note that it’s NOT a skin condition.

3. Here's What Causes It

According to Women’s Health Concern, vestibulodynia happens when there is an overgrowth of nerve fibers in the vulva area or existing nerves are extremely sensitive. Currently, researchers are still trying to find causes for the condition. However, no evidence suggests that STDs cause it. According to WebMD, some causes could be nerve injury or irritation, hypersensitivity to yeast infections, hormonal changes, frequent antibiotic use, or genetic factors that make the vulva respond badly to chronic inflammation.

4. The Pain Is Real

According to the study, the pain felt is very specific. Women describe the pain as “burning” and “prickly.” But the real struggle is feeling like they’re missing out on having a good sex life.

"It has to do with the desire for intimacy and to experience pleasure. They really want to have sex, they feel that they're missing out on something that they hear others talk about, something they've rarely or never experienced themselves," Groven said in the study. According to the authors, many young women experience this pain hear about sex and have great expectations for it. However, “it is such an enormous disappointment to realize that they can barely be touched.”

On the plus side, six of the women interviewed are in relationships. Their partners are aware of their condition and are supportive. However, as researchers noted, there are no studies of how partners deal with the condition.

5. Diagnosis And Treatment

After a doctor rules our infections and vulval skin conditions, gynecologists will usually take a Q-tip to touch the entry of the vagina. Treatments vary based on physician, but typical treatment ranges from local anesthetic creams or gels and pelvic floor muscle physiotherapy, to sometimes surgery. Creams or gels can temporarily numb the nerves in the skin and usually safe for regular use.

But as one woman in the study said, finding ways to have sex that doesn’t involve penetration has worked well for her and her partner. Also, it’s very possible to find positions that are less painful and sometimes even pleasurable.

"These are active women. They seek help, and they have often diagnosed themselves by the use of Google and others suffering from vestibulodynia with whom they've communicated online before they see a gynecologist," Groven said. "They don't give up, they don't just accept their condition, they keep trying. Both in the relationship and on their own."

Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast, I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.

Images: Andrew Zaeh/Bustle; Giphy (6)