We all know about yeast infections and UTIs, but the word vulvodynia isn’t in most collegiettes’ vocabularies. Vulvodynia is a chronic pain syndrome, much like fibromyalgia or arthritis, that affects (you guessed it!) the vulva. It’s not an infection, it’s not sexually transmitted and it’s not contagious, but millions of women suffer from this hard-to-explain condition that can make sex and everyday living painful.
The word itself just means pain of the vulva (which is the proper name for female genitalia) but the chronic pain syndrome can mean different things for different women. Beyond a painful hook-up, some women find using tampons impossible; others find that sitting down or wearing tight pants can provoke pain. And unfortunately, because the disorder presents itself differently for different women, it can be difficult to diagnose and treat. But don't worry, Her Campus has you covered on what you need to know about this tricky pain syndrome. Here’s what to look for, how to get help, and how to get pain-free.
What is it?
According to Suzy Pare, a women’s health practitioner at the Cleveland Clinic, vulvodynia is pain of the vulva with no identifiable cause. Unlike yeast infections and STDs, there’s no test for vulvodynia, and it’s a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that doctors have to rule out many other vulvar conditions before you can get properly diagnosed with vulvodynia. The main symptoms include feelings of burning, rawness, soreness, throbbing, itching and painful sex. But here’s the complicated part: there are often no visible signs, unlike some infections. Unlike pain that can occur after rough sex and feel like these symptoms, vulvodynia is persistent and doesn’t go away.
What are the causes?
Vulvodynia is caused by many different factors—sometimes, it’s nerve-related, other times it’s muscle-related, and there are more factors in between. You can experience symptoms at any time in your life, and it can be related to some sort of trauma to the vulvar area, like an accident or sexual abuse. But more often than not, the syndrome can affect you with no contributing factors—and it’s not uncommon. According to the National Vulvodynia Association, one in four women will experience symptoms in her lifetime, lasting from months to years.
Not a lot of research has been devoted to vulvodynia, says Christin Veasley, the director of the National Vulvodynia Association. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to alleviate your pain. Different treatments work for different cases, but most often you’ll be prescribed with numbing creams, topical or oral antidepressants, physical therapy, biofeedback or in rare cases, surgery.
How is it treated?
Vulvodynia may sound foreign and scary, but there are many treatment options, depending on the origin of the pain. Nerve-related pain may respond best to tricylic antidepressants, while physical therapy may work best for pain that is related to muscle spasms. Other treatments include nerve blocks or lidocaine (both of which are anesthetics), or, in rare cases, surgery may be recommended. Often a combination of different treatments works best. Your gynecologist can help you find a strategy to keep you as pain-free as possible.
One of the best things you can do, regardless of your diagnosis, is to avoid irritating or aggravating the area by practicing healthy habits such as wearing 100% cotton underwear, not douching, and not using fabric softener on underwear. These things won’t cure you of pain if you have vulvodynia, but they can really help.