Here are a few words that you may hear your doctor use:
Cervix – The neck of the uterus, at the top of the vagina
Dyspareunia – A medical term for painful sex
Menopause – The discontinuation of a woman’s menstrual period
PCOS – Polycystic ovary syndrome
STI – Sexually transmitted infection
Vulva – The outer lips of the vagina
Vulvodynia — Chronic vulvar pain, usually without an identifiable cause.
Vulvovaginal Atrophy — A drop in estrogen following menopause
Yeast infection — A common imbalance of healthy bacteria and yeast in the vagina
What’s causing your vaginal pain?
If you’re experiencing an uncomfortable sensation in your pelvic region or vagina with no easily identifiable cause, including sores, throbbing, rawness, burning or just a sharp, stinging pain, the first step is to understand that you’re not alone. Up to 16 percent of women in the U.S. suffer from vulvodynia — chronic, difficult-to-identify pain around the opening of your vagina — at some point in their lives, according to the National Vulvodynia Association.
Whether chronic vaginal pain is a mild inconvenience or a major detriment to your lifestyle, no woman should be in the dark when it comes to what’s going on with her body. In this article, we’ll help you to identify exactly which type of vaginal pain you’re experiencing, pinpoint the main causes of vulvodynia and arm you with the knowledge to take your treatment — and your life — back into your own hands.
Why does my pelvic area hurt?
A good start is trying to find out what is causing your vaginal pain. Start by narrowing down your symptoms, which will help us get closer to being able to identify the potential source of the problem.
Are you experiencing an itching or burning sensation? Does the pain intensify during sex? Or maybe you feel mostly fine, but are concerned about more visible signs that something is amiss, like lesions or sores on your private parts?
To this day, doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes vulvodynia, but they have a pretty good idea about which factors that can make the problem worse:
- Injury to or irritation affecting the nerves surrounding your vulva or pelvic region
- Allergies or sensitive skin
- Sudden hormonal changes
- Past vaginal infections
- Muscle spasm or weakness in the pelvic floor, which supports the uterus, bladder and bowel
No matter what, it’s important to visit your doctor if you begin experiencing symptoms of vulvodynia. Although vaginal pain is a totally common occurrence and no reason to worry, a trained medical professional will be able to definitively rule out any underlying conditions, including yeast infections, herpes, dermal conditions or other medical problems, such as diabetes.
Is it vulvodynia — or something more serious?
While Vulvodynia can have several underlying causes, the most common source of pelvic or vaginal pain is infection, according to the UNC School of Medicine.
The most common types of infection? Gonorrhea, chlamydia and yeast infection — which, we’d like to remind you, are all highly treatable and curable ailments that are totally normal to find yourself unexpectedly dealing with.
Although an infection on its own isn’t a cause for alarm, they can cause more serious consequences down the road if left untreated for too long, which is why you should visit your doctor’s office as soon as possible to let them know what’s going on.
It’s also possible that your pain doesn’t stem from an infection, though — and sadly, in those cases it’s sometimes even harder to get a diagnosis.
According to one NIH-funded Harvard study, 60 percent of affected women are forced to visit three or more doctors before they receive a diagnosis of vulvodynia. The same study also found that as many as 40 percent of women seeking treatment for vulvodynia are not accurately diagnosed after seeing as many as three doctors.
The reason for this, plain and simple, is that there are obvious inequities in the U.S. healthcare system and major funding gaps when it comes to women’s health research. But that’s no reason to despair; all that means is that you have to be extra persistent about taking your pain seriously — and getting everyone around you to do the same.
Could PCOS be causing your vaginal pain?
The short answer? Yes. While vaginal or pelvic pain is a less common symptom of PCOS — short for polycystic ovary syndrome — the hormonal disorder could be another potential cause of vulvodynia.
PCOS commonly causes the formation of ovarian cysts, which can feel like a dull pain in your lower belly, similar to a period cramp. Pelvic pain or vulvodynia can also be caused by a number of common hormonal disorders, including ovulation, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and just your regular menstrual cycle.
At your annual gynecological checkup, always be sure to mention if you’re feeling abnormal or irregular amounts of vaginal pain — they’ll perform a totally standard and painless examination to make sure you’re in the clear, and you’ll have the peace of mind that comes with knowing what exactly is going on with your body.
How to treat sores in the vagina
While it’s best to leave the long-term medicinal treatment of viral or bacterial sores to the professionals, sometimes a little self-care goes a long way towards relieving pain.
If you’ve noticed sores on your vagina that are new or painful, sometimes the easiest way to soothe your pain is to remove some of the more obvious stressors that could be irritating your pelvic area:
- Wear loose-fitting, breathable cotton clothing whenever possible
- Remove bathing suits or other sweaty or damp clothes as soon as possible
- Switch out your laundry detergent, in case an irritation or reaction is the root cause
- Use unscented toilet paper
- Keep shampoo and harsh soaps away from your vagina
- Avoid hot tubs and chlorinated pools until the pain subsides
- Use a water-soluble lubricant to avoid irritating the area during sex
If removing common irritants isn’t helping to ease your symptoms of vulvodynia or soothe your sores, don’t lose hope. There are professionals who can help you better manage your pain, and there should be no stigma associated with getting the help you need.
How do I know when to see a doctor?
If you’re experiencing persistent, chronic vaginal pain, there will be no greater comfort than going to a doctor to find out once and for all what’s ailing your body. Even so, many women face a certain amount of anxiety when it comes to visiting their gynecologists.
As Marifran Mattson, a health communications professor at Purdue University, put it to VeryWellHealth:
"Many women suffer tremendous anxiety about their annual gynecological exam. The anxiety is preventing women from receiving the best care possible, and many women who seek care regularly are not pleased with their visits."
It’s no wonder why as women we face disproportionate amounts of pressure when it comes to making sure our lady parts are well cared for: the healthcare system is notoriously male-dominated, and women’s reproductive health services still carry an unfortunate (and totally baffling) stigma.
But they call it “women’s intuition” for a reason: You just know when something is feeling off with your body, and it’s up to you to advocate for the care you need and deserve. If you’re experiencing pain that’s in any way inconveniencing you or disrupting your life, do yourself a favor and see a doctor — even if you’re convinced it’s “probably nothing,” it will give you peace of mind in the long run to know for sure.
Treatment options for vulvodynia
Even though doctors are still working to pinpoint the exact cause of vulvodynia, many existing treatments can minimize your pelvic pain symptoms just like they would for other chronic pain conditions.
There are several oral medications doctors usually prescribe to treat vaginal pain, including, in some cases, low doses of antidepressants. Doctors tend to take anxiety and depression seriously as a common side-effect of vulvodynia, and frequently also recommend psychotherapy solutions for dealing with symptoms.
Although we need more research on the efficacy of alternative treatments, there are plenty of other methods out there, including anticonvulsant therapy, topical ointments, anti-inflammatory agents and good old fashioned ibuprofen to help soothe the pain. Botox injections, nerve blocks, and acupuncture have also been used to treat vaginal and pelvic pain, but you’ll likely have to shell out the big bucks for those methods.
Finally, in extremely rare cases, a surgery known as a vestibulectomy is sometimes recommended for women who suffer from Provoked Vestibulodynia — a common subtype of vulvodynia that causes pain only when pressure is applied to the tissue surrounding the vaginal opening.
- Chronic vaginal pain is a normal occurrence that can affect anyone, at any time
- Steer clear of allergens or irritants, which can make the pain worse
- Make sure your vagina is properly moisturized if your experience dryness or irritation
- Consult a doctor if you are unsure about the origin of a chronic vaginal or pelvic pain
- Be persistent about receiving a diagnosis that’s helpful
- Use water-soluble lubricants during sex to avoid flare-ups
- Always, always trust your gut when it comes to your health
No matter what your experience with vaginal pain has been like, just know that you’re not alone — there is a body of research that speaks to your experience and treatment options readily available. Whether it’s sores, sharp pain or stinging that’s causing your discomfort, women shouldn’t have to suffer through vulvodynia.