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About Vulvodynia - A Women's Pelvic Pain Condition

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Updated July 31, 2009

What Vulvodynia Is:

Vulvodynia is a type of women's pelvic pain. Simply put, it is pain in or around the vulva, or the external female genitalia, lasting three months or more. Unfortunately, the cause of vulvodynia pain is often unknown, making it a challenge to treat. Most cases occur in women who are between the ages of 18 and 25, though vulvodynia can occur in women of any age. Instances are much less common, however, in women over 35. Vulvodynia can occur at one time or another in up to 18% of all women.

Vulvodynia Symptoms:

Most women describe their vulvodynia pain as burning or stinging, though others have referred to it as stabbing or aching. Vulvodynia pain can occur anywhere in the female genitalia, including the labia, clitoris and surrounding vaginal area. Some vulvodynia pain may radiate to the inner thighs or the perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus). The pain may come and go, or it may be constant. Vulvodynia pain is not always in the same place. Some women have increased pain during sexual intercourse or when using a tampon. Some may even have more vulvodynia pain simply when wearing underwear.

Diagnosing Vulvodynia:

Diagnosing vulvodynia involves a doctor taking a medical history and asking about symptoms, as well as conducting an external vaginal exam and lab testing. Your doctor will thoroughly inspect your vagina and surrounding areas, taking swabs to rule out any infection. He may apply pressure to see what, if anything, increases your pain. Some women with vulvodynia may have a biopsy of their vaginal or vulvar tissue. During your exam, you can also expect to have bloodwork to measure your levels of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.

Vulvodynia Treatment:

There is no known "cure" for vulvodynia, but there are some potentially effective treatments:
  • Oral pain medication: Commonly used pain medications for vulvodynia include antidepressants, anticonvulsants and opioids.

  • Topical medication: Hormone creams and topical analgesics can help reduce pain.

  • Physical therapy: PTs can teach pelvic floor exercises that may help to control vulvodynia pain.
  • Complementary medicine: Options such as acupuncture, hypnosis and relaxation can help relieve vulvodynia pain.
Other possible vulvodynia treatments include nerve blocks, dietary changes or even surgery.

Prognosis of Vulvodynia:

Some women find relief from using one or more of the above treatments, while others may continue to experience vulvodynia pain for some time. Unfortunately, there is no cure for vulvodynia, possibly because the cause is usually a mystery. Some women may require visits to multiple specialists before they find relief. Others may need counseling because of vulvodynia's impact on their sex life and/or personal relationships. While there is no one cause or cure for vulvodynia, research on more accurate diagnoses and better clinical management is ongoing.

Sources:

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Vulvodynia: What is Vulvodynia? Accessed 7/30/09. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/Vulvodynia.cfm

National Vulvodynia Association. About Vulvodynia: What is Vulvodynia? Accessed 7/30/09. http://www.nva.org/about_vulvodynia/what_is_vulvodynia.html

National Vulvodynia Association. About Vulvodynia: Diagnosis. Accessed 7/30/09. http://www.nva.org/about_vulvodynia/diagnosis.html

Office of Research on Women’s Health. Vulvodynia: Understanding Vulvodynia and Planning for Future Research. Science Series 2007, National Institutes of Health.

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