Vestibulodynia, previously known as vulvar vestibulitis, is a descriptive term used for pain arising at the entrance to the vagina, the vestibule. By definition, there is no known cause for the pain and the affected tissue appears normal. Vestibulodynia, like 'itch' or 'headache', is not a disease.
Vestibulodynia is a common reason for entry dyspareunia (pain on attempting penetration during sexual intercourse). Vestibulodynia may be accompanied by vaginismus, an involuntary pelvic muscle contraction that prevents sexual intercourse. Vaginismus may also cause pain.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of vestibulodynia include:
- Pain that occurs when the vestibule is touched, either during sexual penetration, insertion of a tampon, or sometimes during other physical activity such as bike riding
- Pain that is not present all the time
- Pain that is confined to the vestibule and lower vagina
- In some patients, pain on urination
The pain may persist for several hours and can prevent penetrative intercourse altogether.
What causes it?
Vestibulodynia reflects hypersensitive nerve endings in the affected mucosa. Vestibulodynia may be triggered or exacerbated by previous:
- Chronic yeast infection (thrush) resulting in vulval and vaginal soreness
- Injury, including sexual abuse, childbirth and laser treatment or surgery
- Skin disease especially irritant contact dermatitis to detergents, douches, panty liners
- Emotional factors
The tender spots in the vestibular mucosa are trigger points linked to hypersensitive muscle spindles within the pubococcygeus or pelvic floor muscles. These muscles have high resting tone, i.e. they are contracting even at apparent times of rest and may completely close the vagina.
Small red spots may be noted within the vestibule due to inflammation of minor lubricating glands. These are no longer considered related to vulvodynia and are are often present in women with no symptoms.
Who gets vestibulodynia?
Vestibulodynia usually affects sexually active women aged 20 to 40, but younger and older women may also be affected. It affects pale skinned races and Asians, but is reported to be rare in women of African descent.
How is it diagnosed?
Vestibulodynia is diagnosed when a woman describes pain in the entrance to the vagina when the affected area appears normal and treatment of infection has failed. Vaginismus is diagnosed when tight pelvic muscles are found on internal examination.
Thorough skin and gynaecological examination, lower vaginal swabs for bacteria and yeasts, and skin biopsy may be performed but are unhelpful.
It may be important that examination is carried out when symptoms are present, as signs of an active skin disorder may be subtle, especially recurrent fissuring of the posterior fourchette.
Women who suffer from vestibulodynia may have done so for months or years. Treatment can be difficult and dedication by the patient and therapist is required in order to overcome the physical and psychological impact the disorder can have on daily life.
In some patients symptoms settle by themselves, although it may take months or sometimes years to do so. The most successful measures appear to be:
- Referral to a physiotherapist specialising in urological and gynaecological problems for pelvic floor exercises, biofeedback, electrical stimulation and muscle relaxation training.
- The tricyclic medicines amitriptyline, nortriptyline or desipramine, usually thought of as anti-depressants, taken in small doses at night. The dose should be increased 5 to 10 mg at first to 75 to 100 mg, depending on effect. These medicines have a membrane stabilising effect on nerve endings.
- If these are unsuccessful, anticonvulsant medications, particularly gabapentin or pregabalin, may be successful.
Experimentally, botulinum toxin injections into the affected areas have been reported to be effective. In severe cases, the affected area may be excised (cut out).
Surgery may be very successful, but it sometimes makes symptoms worse so is rarely performed.
Local anaesthetic creams may provide temporary relief e.g. to allow intercourse.
Support for and education of the condition are essential components of treatment. Both the patient and their partner need to understand and learn how to cope with the stresses that the condition can place on relationships.
- Discuss your problem openly and bring your partner to the appointment with your doctor.
- Avoid all contact with the affected area for several weeks.
- Make sure you are ready for intercourse physically and emotionally before it occurs – learn how the body responds to sexual stimuli. Foreplay is very important to provide adequate lubrication and to relax and enlarge the vagina.
- Lubricate before intercourse or inserting a tampon.
- Have a warm relaxing bath when the pain occurs – don't apply soap.
- Sex without penetration: ask your doctor to refer you and your partner to a sex therapist for advice – lovemaking can still be satisfying for both of you.
On DermNet NZ:
- Dysaesthetic vulvodynia
- Cyclic vulvovaginitis
- Pruritus vulvae
- Genital skin problems
- Recurrent fissuring of posterior fourchette
- Vaginismus.com – Helping Women Overcome Sexual Pain
- Vulvodynia Support NZ
- National Vulvodynia Association (US)
- UK Vulval Pain Society
- “Painful Sex vs. ‘Normal’ Sex: The Differences Explained With Food” A new short film highlights a burning issue – Women4Real
- Vulvodynia.pl Polish site
- Vulvodynia and vestibulodynia – British Association of Dermatologists