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Painful sex in women

Author: Amanda Oakley FRACP, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 2011. Reviewed by Dr Jennifer Bradford, Gynaecologist, Sydney, Australia.

The medical term for painful sex or sexual pain in women is dyspareunia. Dyspareunia is defined as persistent or recurrent genital pain that occurs just before, during or after intercourse. There are two types:

Dyspareunia is common and may cause considerable distress to women and their sexual partners. It may be caused by structural, infective and inflammatory diseases of the vulva, vagina and internal organs. Psychosocial factors inevitably contribute to, and result from, dyspareunia.

Entry dyspareunia

The most common vulval skin diseases resulting in superficial or entry dyspareunia include:

Dyspareunia associated with dry vagina or vaginal inflammation (vaginitis) may be due to:

Dyspareunia may also result from:

Deep dyspareunia

Deep dyspareunia means sexual pain that is felt in the abdomen, rather than in the vagina. Causes may include:

Diagnosis of dyspareunia

Correct diagnosis requires careful history and clinical examination of the whole body including external genitalia, and pelvic examination by a medical expert (e.g., gynaecologist, sexual health physician or general practitioner) or physiotherapist. Colposcopy (pelvic examination using magnification and a bright light) may be performed. The site of pain should be carefully identified. Examination under anaesthetic may be required if discomfort is too great to allow a normal internal examination.

Investigations may include:

In many cases, no physical reason is found for dyspareunia and it is considered a pain syndrome.

Treatment of dyspareunia

Intercourse should not be painful. It's important to feel relaxed before attempting intercourse. Foreplay leading to sexual excitement relaxes the pelvic muscles, widens the vagina and releases vaginal fluids. Use liberal amounts of water-based lubricants and apply these to the penis and vaginal opening. Penetration from behind or woman-on-top may be better tolerated.

If a cause for the dyspareunia has been found, then appropriate treatment should help. General measures may also assist:

An experienced pelvic floor physiotherapist can help in retraining the pelvic floor to relax using special exercises. Counselling or behavioural therapy is appropriate for some women or couples.

If vaginal intercourse remains painful, consider other sexual options including massage and mutual masturbation.

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