At 17, chronic pain hijacked my lady parts. The symptoms of vulvodynia were impossible to ignore: burning, itching, redness, and a white hot stabbing feeling if I dared put anything near my vulva. Sex (which I had joyfully discovered the year before) suddenly became impossible to have, and I began to wonder what I could have done to deserve this curse. The obvious explanation in my young mind was that I was being punished for having pre-marital sex (thanks, internalized religious misogyny!), so I kept the condition a secret from my parents.
Confused about what was going on down there, my boyfriend became more and more distant until he unceremoniously dumped me. This was the '90s, before WebMD, and so I was left to my own devices until I finally woman'd up and went to a gynecologist. After a variety of tests and lifestyle changes, the condition magically disappeared — only to reappear a few years later and disappear again. The jury is still out on if/when it will come back, but thanks to the growing visibility of this often debilitating condition today, there's a lot more support for those of us who experience this mystery scourge.
In 2016, there is unfortunately still no known single cause or cure for vulvodynia, and doctors are still debating protocol for the illness that can plague vulva-having folks everywhere. Here are five things to know about vulvodynia:
1. It's Pretty Common
According to surveys and studies of women with chronic vulvar pain, about 16 percent of women experience vulvodynia at some point in their life. This isn't some niche condition, but an issue affecting at least 13 million American women on the regular.
2. It Might Be Triggered By Stress Or Trauma
The times in my life when my vulvodynia flared up coincided with high stress relationships. Emotional manipulation, infidelity, and a regular diet of tension aren't good for your overall health, and it all seemed to impact my vulvar health, too. This is, of course, only my individual experience, and correlation does not equal causation, but one study did link adverse life events to outbreaks. Unfortunately, vulvodynia is also known to cause anxiety and depression (pretty much a no brainer as to why), so that's something to watch out for as you're assessing how to best care for yourself.
3. It Might Be Caused By Chemical Irritation
There are so many things you shouldn't put near your vagina, and harsh chemicals are included in that group. One gynecologist I went to suggested I stop using any chemical-based detergents to wash my clothes and switch to chemical-free shampoos, conditioners and body washes. (Pro tip: castile soap rules for this.) Although chemical irritation isn't necessarily the cause for every woman, it is currently accepted among doctors that it can be a factor in causing vulvodynia.
4. It Might Be Caused By Yeast Infections
Yeast infections bring on their own lovely concoction of pain and burning sensations, and apparently, mistreated yeast infections can cause vulvodynia, too. Having a vagina is a real barrel of laughs sometimes!
5. It Is Not Impacted By Your Sex Number
Sex negative fear mongers have circulated this misinformation for years, so let's set the record straight: the number of sexual partners you've had has nothing to do with whether or not you'll get vulvodynia. I repeat, the number of sexual partners you've had has nothing to do with whether or not you'll get vulvodynia.
6. The NVA Can Help
The National Vulvodynia Association is a good resource for information, support services, and up-to-date research on this condition. Don't let anyone tell you you're "crazy" or imagining things if you've been experiencing chronic vulvar pain and your doctor says you're completely healthy. Unfortunately, female pain has been proven to be taken less seriously than male pain, so you're gonna need to advocate for yourself. And when in doubt, use the NVA's services for help.
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