What is vulvodynia?
Vulvodynia is ongoing pain around the opening of your vagina (called the vulva). It’s also sometimes called vulval pain.
There’s usually no obvious explanation for the pain, and it tends to be persistent, lasting for months or even years.
It can make daily life very difficult, as long periods of sitting becomes uncomfortable and sexual intercourse can be painful. But there are many things you can do to help relieve the pain, and different treatment options are also available.
The exact cause of vulvodynia isn’t known, but it’s thought to be affected by:
- Damage to the nerves that supply the vulva – this could be caused by childbirth, surgery, severe vaginal thrush or trapped nerves
- Persistent vaginal infections, like thrush
- Low oestrogen levels, especially during the menopause
- Allergies or sensitive skin
- Certain medical conditions
- Repeated herpes infections
The main symptom of vulvodynia is persistent pain in the genital area, around your vulva and vagina. Often, the vulva doesn’t change in appearance, but the pain might be:
- A throbbing, burning or stinging sensation
- Worse when touched
- Uncomfortable when you sit for long periods
- Unbearable during sex
- Some women experience pain in one area of the vulva (known as localised vulvodynia), and others have pain spread over the whole genital area or in different places at different times (known as generalised vulvodynia).
You may experience other problems alongside vulvodynia, like painful periods, vaginismus (when the muscles around the vagina tighten), a painful bladder condition called interstitial cystitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Because of the effect that vulvodynia can have on your daily life, it can also lead to emotional problems like:
- Sex and relationship difficulties
- Anxiety and depression
- Body image problems
- It can be challenging to talk about the emotional effect the condition is having on you. But it’s a good idea to discuss these issues with a doctor if you can. They’re here to listen and will be able to offer help and support.
If you’re experiencing ongoing vulval pain, it’s unlikely to go away on its own, and you’ll need to see a doctor. You can also visit a sexual health clinic for advice.
The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine your vulva, lightly touching it with a cotton swab to see where the pain is.
They may also take a sample of cells from your vagina to check if the pain is caused by another condition, like bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection.
There is a range of different treatment options – you may find it helps to use a combination of these. Treatments include:
- Over-the-counter gels and lubricants – Anaesthetic gels, creams and lubricants can help to make sex more comfortable. You can also buy vaginal lubricants and aqueous creams to help soothe and lubricate the vagina if it’s dry
- Certain antidepressants and anti-epilepsy medications can help to relieve the pain
- Anaesthetic and steroid injections can be a successful treatment for targeting pain in specific places
- Physiotherapy is a good option as it can teach you exercises to help you relax the muscles around the vagina
- Therapy and counselling can help you to learn to cope with the impact that vulvodynia has on your life
It can be upsetting and frustrating to live with an ongoing health condition. Many people find it helpful to talk to others who understand how they feel. This may be a local support group or a helpline service run by a charity. Talk to a doctor about what’s available in your area.
- Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont
Lead GP at Livi
- Last updated: