April 15, 2003 -- It's a private, debilitating pain for women -- and much more prevalent than doctors once thought. Vulvodynia -- a sharp, knifelike or burning pain around the opening of the vagina that is unexplained -- burdens many women, a new study now shows.
The findings are outlined in this month's issue of The Journal of the American Women's Medical Association.
Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital surveyed Boston-area women, sending questionnaires to almost 5,000 women between the ages 18 and 64.
Some 16% of the women had experienced chronic vulvar pain for at least three months or longer. Nearly 7% were experiencing vulvodynia at the time of the survey. The numbers of white and African-American women suffering this pain were similar; however, Hispanic women were 80% more likely to experience vulvar pain.
Some 40% of women surveyed chose not to seek treatment for their vulvodynia even when the symptoms limited intercourse. More than 60% who sought treatment saw three or more clinicians.
"The magnitude of this problem is largely unknown," says researcher Bernard L. Harlow, PhD, an obstetrics/gynecology researcher with Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, in a news release.
"Our study is the first to suggest that this disorder affects an ethnically diverse group of women and may be a much larger problem than we ever thought," he says.
An estimated 5% of all women will experience this condition before age 25, and it is likely the true figures are much larger, Harlow states. Women who have pain the first time they use a tampon were seven to eight times more likely to have chronic vulvar pain later in life, he says.
An estimated 10 million doctor's office visits every year are for vulvodynia -- although there has long been a myth that such pain is "just in a woman's head," says Elizabeth Gunther Stewart, MD, who co-authored the paper. "The research tells women they are not alone -- according to the data, upwards of 14 million women may suffer from vulvodynia (vulvar pain) during their lifetime."