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Vulvodynia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Women with vulvodynia have chronic vulvar pain with no known cause. Until recently, doctors didn’t recognize this as a real pain syndrome. Even today, many women do not receive a diagnosis. They may also remain isolated by a condition that is not easy to discuss. Researchers are working hard to uncover the causes of vulvodynia and to find better ways to treat it.

Types of Vulvodynia

Vulvodynia affects the vulva, the external female genital organs. This includes the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening.

There are two main subtypes of vulvodynia:
 

  • Generalized vulvodynia is pain in different areas of the vulva at different times. Vulvar pain may be constant or occur every once in a while. Touch or pressure may or may not prompt it. But this may make the pain worse.
  • Vulvar vestibulitis syndrome is pain in the vestibule. This is the entrance to the vagina. Often a burning sensation, this type of vulvar pain comes on only after touch or pressure, such as during intercourse.

Possible Causes of Vulvodynia

Doctors don’t know the cause of most forms ofvulvodynia. And there is no evidence that infections, such as sexually transmitted diseases, cause vulvodynia.

Researchers are trying to find the causes of vulvodynia. They may include:

  • Nerve injury or irritation
  • Abnormal response in vulvar cells to an infection or trauma
  • Genetic factors that make the vulva respond poorly to chronic inflammation
  • Hypersensitivity to yeast infections
  • Muscle spasms
  • Allergies or irritation to chemicals or other substances
  • Hormonal changes
  • History of sexual abuse
  • Frequent antibiotic use

Women with Vulvodynia: Who Has It?

A woman of any age, beginning in her teen years, may have vulvodynia. Estimates of women with vulvodynia range from 200,000 to six million. Once thought to mainly affect white females, African-American and Hispanic women are now known to be equally affected.

Signs and Symptoms of Vulvodynia

Symptoms of vulvodynia usually begin suddenly and can last anywhere from months to years.

These are the most common symptoms of vulvodynia:

  • Burning, stinging, or rawness
  • Aching, soreness, or throbbing
  • Itching

You may feel symptoms of vulvodynia:

  • All the time or just once in a while
  • During activities such as exercise, intercourse, or walking -- or even while at rest 
  • While bicycling, inserting tampons, or even sitting
  • In one specific area or throughout your entire vulva

A burning pain is the single most common symptom of vulvodynia. Some women describe it as a knife-like pain or like an acid poured on the skin.

Although the vulva usually appears normal, it may look a bit inflamed or swollen.

The Physical and Emotional Impact of Vulvodynia

Vulvodynia can have a huge impact on a woman's life. It can impair her ability to have sex, exercise, socialize, or work. A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study showed that most women with vulvodynia feel ''out of control,'' unable to have sexual intercourse, and unable to fully enjoy life. If this is true for you, seek the support you need.

WebMD Medical Reference

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