Living with Vulvodynia - When pleasure turns to pain
Apr 1, 2023
The truth hurts and for a lot of women, sex does too.
Sex feels good – or at least it’s supposed to. For many women, building a positive relationship with sex takes time and effort. You have to learn to get comfortable with your body, experiment to understand what you like, and communicate these things with a partner. But what happens when this relationship sours overnight and pleasure turns to pain?
Who’s the culprit?
Meet Vulvodynia (vul-voe-DIN-e-uh), a chronic pain or discomfort at the opening of your vagina (vulva) that lasts at least three months. This somewhat ambiguous condition affects 16% of women according to the National Vulvodynia Association. Sensations vary from itching, to aching, and even burning and usually happens whenever there is pressure on the vulva. But, aside from pain, there are no visible symptoms which is why this condition is so perplexing. It comes without warning and stays, in some cases, for years, turning things like using a tampon, sitting, tight pants, and sex to painful ordeals.
Rebel without a cause
Some factors contribute to vulvodynia like infection, inflammation, allergies, hormonal changes, trauma, but most women feel left in the dark since there’s no clear cause for their condition. Living with chronic pain can be distressing - without clarity, vulvodynia can lead to depression and anxiety, body image issues, relationship problems, and an overall decrease in quality of life.
Feeling frustrated about your body can change your entire relationship with it. Vulvodynia doesn’t affect your ability to experience sexual arousal, but in most cases, sex becomes excruciating. Living in a paradox of wanting sex, and at the same time, fearing it, changes your relationship with your body and intimacy.
No quick fix
Dealing with chronic pain. Since little is known about the root cause of vulvodynia, finding a cure becomes tricky but there are options available to help manage your vulvodynia. You can speak to your doctor about topical and oral pain medication to help with the pain. However, this method only treats symptoms of vulvodynia and, in the long-term, medications like topical cortisone could actually lead to thinning of the vaginal skin, making the pain worse. Using medication is best coupled with holistic pain management methods, which can be more effective in tackling the root of your pain.
Get moving. Practicing yoga can be very useful in managing your vulvodynia. Holding deep stretches for periods of time brings deep relaxation to your mind and body through alignment. Hip and pelvic floor stretches have also proven to be effective in decreasing the pain during intercourse. Physiotherapy is also another way to learn about exercises that can relax the muscles around your vagina.
Stay mindful. Meditation can be used to redirect your attention from your mind to your body by aligning the two. Physical symptoms are often related to psychological ailments. Relaxing the mind can lead to deep muscle relaxation and in turn, ease excess vaginal tension.
Talk it out. Since trauma can be a significant factor in vulvodynia flares, seeking professional help through psychotherapy is a good option to explore the root of your pain. Additionally, therapy can help with managing the stress of chronic pain and the strain it can cause on your relationship.
Getting back in the groove
Experiencing chronic pain in a relationship is taxing on both individuals. Intimacy can feel impossible, but it’s vital to relearn and explore new avenues of closeness.
Try a new way to look at things. When you’re in the mood, approach sex from a different angle – literally. If vaginal sex hurts, external stimulation can bring a lot of pleasure for both yourself
and your partner. It may not be the same, but it can be just as gratifying.
It’s the journey not the destination. Orgasms and climaxing aren’t the only ways you can enjoy intimacy with your partner. Reimagine intimacy by exploring new things during foreplay. Don’t see it as the prelude to sex, but as way of reintroducing your present-self to your partner.
Go slow. If you do choose to do vaginal sex, start gradually. Use a lot of lubrication to minimize friction, try one finger first, before moving your way up. Be sure to communicate with your partner along the way and when you feel like it’s getting too much, know your limits and set boundaries.
Be open. Even though you are dealing with the pain alone, in a relationship you have to work with your partner so they can meet you where you’re at. Let them know when your symptoms are most intense, and make an effort to ask for and give reassurance. Keep an open mind, and know that intimacy can be as vocal as it is physical.
Navigating chronic pain can feel hopeless, but always remember that your body is constantly evolving. A condition like vulvodynia is part of many women’s everchanging relationship with intimacy. Your body may be telling you something about the emotional strain it's been put through. Re-exploration takes time, so if you are living with chronic pain, be patient and remain hopeful. There is light at the end of the tunnel and you will find ways to manage your pain.