Vulvodynia is a pain disorder of the vulva. This is the outside area of a woman's genitals. Vulvodynia causes severe pain, burning, and stinging of the vulva.
The exact cause of vulvodynia is unknown. Researchers are working to learn more about the condition. Causes may include:
- Irritation or injury to the nerves of the vulva
- Hormonal changes
- Overreaction in the cells of the vulva to infection or injury
- Extra nerve fibers in the vulva
- Weak pelvic floor muscles
- Allergies to certain chemicals
- Genetic factors that cause sensitivity or overreaction to infection or inflammation
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) DO NOT cause this condition.
There are two main types of vulvodynia:
- Localized vulvodynia. This is pain in just one area of the vulva, usually the opening of the vagina (vestibule). The pain often occurs due to pressure on the area, such as from sexual intercourse, inserting a tampon, or sitting for a long time.
- General vulvodynia. This is pain in different areas of the vulva. The pain is fairly constant, with some periods of relief. Pressure on the vulva, such as from sitting for a long time or wearing tight pants can make symptoms worse.
The vulvar pain is often:
You may feel symptoms all the time or just some of the time. At times, you may feel pain in the area between your vagina and anus (perineum) and in the inner thighs.
Vulvodynia may occur in teens or in women. Women with vulvodynia often complain of pain during sexual activity. It may occur after having sex the first time. Or, it may occur after years of sexual activity.
Certain things may trigger symptoms:
- Sexual intercourse
- Inserting a tampon
- Wearing tight under wear or pants
- Sitting for a long time
- Exercising or bicycling
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history. Your provider may do a urinalysis to rule out a urinary tract infection. You may have other tests to rule out a yeast infection or skin disease.
Your provider also may perform cotton swab test. During this test, the provider will apply gentle pressure to different areas of your vulva and ask you to rate your pain level. This will help identify specific areas of pain.
Vulvodynia is diagnosed when all other possible causes have been excluded.
The goal of the treatment is to reduce pain and relieve symptoms. No one treatment works for all women. You also may need more than one type of treatment to manage your symptoms.
You may be prescribed medicines to help relieve pain, including:
- Topical creams or ointments, such as lidocaine ointment and estrogen cream
Other treatments and methods that may help include:
- Physical therapy to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.
- Biofeedback helps relieve pain by teaching you to relax your pelvic floor muscles.
- Injections of nerve blocks to decrease nerve pain.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to help you deal with your feelings and emotions.
- Diet changes to avoid foods with oxalates, including spinach, beets, peanuts, and chocolate.
- Acupuncture -- be sure to find a practitioner familiar with treating vulvodynia.
- Other complementary medicine practices such as relaxation and meditation.
Lifestyle changes may help prevent vulvodynia triggers and relieve symptoms.
- DO NOT douche or use soaps or oils that may cause inflammation.
- Wear all cotton underwear and don't use fabric softener on underpants.
- Use laundry detergent for sensitive skin and double rinse your underwear.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothes.
- Avoid activities that put pressure on the vulva, such as biking or riding horses.
- Avoid hot tubs.
- Use soft, uncolored toilet paper and rinse your vulva with cool water after urinating.
- Use all-cotton tampons or pads.
- Use a water-soluble lubricant during intercourse. Urinate after sex to prevent a UTI, and rinse the area with cool water.
- Use a cold compress on your vulva to relieve pain, such as after intercourse or exercise (be sure to wrap the compress in a clean towel - DO NOT apply it directly to your skin).
Some women with localized vulvodynia may need surgery to relieve pain. The surgery removes the affected skin and tissues around the vaginal opening. Surgery is done only if all the other treatments fail.
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
The following organization provides information on vulvodynia and local support groups:
- National Vulvodynia Association - www.nva.org
Vulvodynia is a complicated disease. It may take weeks to months to achieve some pain relief. Treatment may not ease all symptoms. A combination of treatments and lifestyle changes may work best to help manage the disease.
Having this condition can take a physical and emotional toll. It can cause:
- Depression and anxiety
- Problems in personal relations
- Sleep problems
- Problems with sex
Working with a therapist can help you better deal with having a chronic condition.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have symptoms of vulvodynia.
Also call your provider if you have vulvodynia and your symptoms get worse.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Committee on Gynecologic Practice; American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP). Committee Opinion No 673: persistent vulvar pain. Obstet Gynecol. 2016;128(3):e78-e84. PMID: 27548558 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27548558/.
Bornstein J, Goldstein AT, Stockdale CK, et al. 2015 ISSVD, ISSWSH, and IPPS consensus terminology and classification of persistent vulvar pain and vulvodynia. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2016;20(2):126-130. PMID: 27002677 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27002677/.
Stenson AL. Vulvodynia: diagnosis and management. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am. 2017;44(3):493-508. PMID: 28778645 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28778645/.
Waldman SD. Vulvodynia. In: Waldman SD, ed. Atlas of Common Pain Syndromes. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 96.