What are sexual pain disorders?

Sexual pain disorders are classically divided into dyspareunia, which means “painful intercourse,” and vaginismus, which refers to the inability to allow vaginal penetration. In the past, sexual pain disorders were considered to be either physical or psychological such that dyspareunia was perceived as “real” pain, and vaginismus was “all in the head.”  Today, it is understood that various factors combine to create painful intercourse. For example, if a woman is not aroused or lubricated, intercourse can be uncomfortable. If she is anxious and afraid  of the pain, her muscles may contract  as a guarding mechanism to prevent this pain, even when she really wants the penetration to occur.

The most common cause of ongoing sexual pain in women in the childbearing years is a condition known as provoked vestibulodynia (PVD). It is known by other names including localized vulvodynia and vulvar vestibulitis, syndrome. PVD is characterized by pain at the entry to the vagina with touch and /or attempted intercourse and is associated with overactive muscles of the pelvic floor.

Some women suffer with  pain after childbirth.  This can be due to a combination of factors including painful stitches from an episiotomy or tears, and vaginal dryness due to the nursing and hormonal birth control. These symptoms can be heightened by fatique and  an overall drop in interest in sex which is not uncommon in the postpartum period.

Treatment for sexual pain disorders should be multidisciplinary. Women who experience painful sex, should see a gynecologist to determine the physical causes. Pelvic floor physical therapy can be very helpful in teaching women how to relax the pelvic floor muscles in order to allow painless penetration.

It is also important to consider the context of sexual relations in the couple. Is sexual activity being experienced in a relaxed, comfortable, and pleasurable way, or is it perceived as a difficult to accomplish task? Frequently, sexual therapy can also be helpful in providing direction in helping couples enjoy a comfortable and meaningful sexual life together.

As both a physical and sexual therapist, I am able to combine these skills to offer an integrated mind and body approach to healing sexual pain.

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