When Painful Sex Is Something Serious

Vulvodynia is a painful syndrome that attacks a woman's most intimate body part

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For some women, the slightest pressure to the most intimate part of her body can be unbearable. The brush of her clothes, the insertion of a tampon, or a partner's gentle touch is instantly transformed into an instrument of pain. The mere act of sitting can be problematic and performing exercise or having sexual intercourse is all but out of the question. The stabbing knife-like pain, burning, irritation and rawness can permeate throughout the pelvic area.

While there is no doubt that pain can have psychological ramifications, contrary to what some people believe, this pain is not in a woman's head. Doctors naive to this condition infer the cause to be solely psychological because they can't zero in on a certain source of the pain. But nothing can be further from the truth.

The pain is a real gynecological condition called vulvodynia (aka vulvar vestibulitis) and the medical community is just waking up to high prevalence of this condition and finally starting to do something about it.

What's Going on Down There?

The vulva is the outer area of the vagina, which includes the clitoris, vaginal lips (labia), and the outer entrance of the vagina called the vestibule. Since it is the hub of the sexual experience the number of nerve endings here, particularly around the clitoris, is plentiful. It is also houses the urethra, the end of line for the urinary tract.

Vulvodynia includes any condition that causes pain, burning or itching in the vulva that cannot be attributed to a specific cause such as an infection, skin condition, neurological damage or cancer. 

The pain can occur unprovoked or it can be triggered by direct contact. It can be constant or intermittent, mild or excruciating, and it can last for 6 months of longer. Childbirth, physical trauma, past surgery, scarring and certain neurological conditions are known to activate vulvodynia.

The actual cause has eluded researchers but a genetic, hormonal, muscular, or neurological component that causes nerves to become overstimulated, overabundant or entangled have been proposed. Some researchers have suggested that whatever is at work with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome is at work here, causing intense and frequent firing of nerve signals.

Although it is not caused by infection or sexually transmitted diseases, people with vulvodynia may have a reaction that heightens the response to irritants like infections that produce an overload of immune chemicals to affect nerve function.