Highlights from this article: 

  • Vestibulodynia—pain on contact, or seemingly randomly within and around the entrance to your vagina often has no immediate obvious cause. But researchers think a combination of genetic and neurobiological factors might be at play.
  • There are two main types of vestibulodynia: provoked and spontaneous
  • It’s likely that the number of us experiencing this type of pain is underreported. But at least 7% (and up to 28%) of women within the US will have experienced it at some point.
  • Currently, treatment is focused on pain management, like pelvic floor exercises, avoiding triggers, and topical numbing medication.

There are times in our lives where you may find yourself wondering, Why does my vagina hurt?  

There’s so much we don’t know about vaginal health, so vaginas can often seem temperamental. After all, your pain could be anything from a yeast infection, to a physical injury, to that new sex toy you got a little trigger happy with (no judgment, we’ve all been there). 

But when this type of pain is persistent and your doctor is just as confused as you are (because tests can’t find anything), you may want to consider vestibulodynia, a condition that’s defined by pain around the entrance of the vagina with no obvious explanation. 

Read on to learn more about the types of vestibulodynia, its symptoms, causes, and risk factors below. 

What is Vestibulodynia?

Vestibulodynia, also known as vulvar vestibulitis syndrome (VVS) is chronic pain that can be felt at and around the entrance (vestibule) of your vagina

Vestibulodynia (like clitorodynia, which is chronic pain in the clitoral area) is a type of vulvodynia, which is an umbrella term for persistent, unexplained vulvar pain. 

You can learn more about vulvodynia in our article on #AskEvvy. 

What does it feel like?

The way someone experiences and describes vaginal pain will be different to the next person. That being said there are common symptoms. 

Typically, vestibulodynia feels like: 

BTW, these last characteristics of vulvodynia are not to be confused with the urge to urinate during sex, which without pain or other symptoms, can be a sign that fluid ejaculation (from the vagina) is about to happen. This is normal (not shameful) and shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. 

Types of Vestibulodynia 

There are two main types of vestibulodynia, “provoked” and “unprovoked”. As you may have guessed from the name, you fall into either category based on what seems to have triggered your pain. 

For example, was there physical pressure involved (such as penetration or even being touched in that area)?  Or was it seemingly random, where no obvious pressure was applied? 

1. Provoked Vestibulodynia

The most common type of vestibulodynia, “provoked” vestibulodynia (PVD), tends to happen after some form of physical pressure in the vaginal entrance area. After said physical contact, the pain response has to last for at least three months to be considered PVD. 

2. Spontaneous Vestibulodynia

When pain around the vaginal entrance happens without physical pressure or being touched in that area, it’s known as “spontaneous” vestibulodynia.

Potential causes and risk factors for vestibulodynia

Like many other acute and chronic conditions specific to women and people with vaginas, the scientific community still does not understand the exact causes or risk factors for vestibulodynia. 

You can think of our current understanding of vestibulodynia as having just a few pieces of a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We have a few good clues but not enough to make a complete picture.  

So far, researchers think both types of vestibulodynia (provoked and spontaneous) are linked to nerve cells (neurons) and how they process information. Neurons are responsible for transmitting all physical stimulation to our brains, they are key players in how we process and experience sensations, like touch, pressure, and even pain. 

The problem with all conditions that cause unexplained pain, is that we know the neurons are stimulated, but we don’t know why they are being stimulated. It could be that the neurons have been overstimulated and respond to the slightest thing. 

For example, if you have a history of recurrent infections, then your neurons are primed to respond and the slightest change will set them off. There could be a genetic component where the signals to the brain are being misinterpreted as pain when it should be pressure or itchiness. Or it could be something else entirely like prolonged localized inflammation. 

Vestibulodynia most likely has a wide range of causes all with the same symptoms, kind of like the common cold. We don’t know what specific virus gave you the cough and sniffles, it could be 1 of 20 different options. For the common cold, we don’t need to know the cause, we treat the symptoms and it goes away eventually. But for pain conditions, knowing the cause makes all the difference. Until we know more, we have to keep treating the symptoms. 

Could there be a relationship between shifts in vaginal flora and vestibulodynia?  

Maybe, but it is too early to tell. 

We do know that people with vestibulodynia have more inflammation around the nerves in their vulvas. It is possible that the vaginal microbiome is playing a role in creating that local inflammation.

However, no single organism has been shown to be the cause. There have been only 3 studies looking at vestibulodynia and the vaginal microbiome. One suggested that L. gasseri was associated with vestibulodynia, another found Bifidobacterium, Mycoplasma, and Fenollaria were potential biomarkers, and a third found a yeast, Aspergillus, was associated with symptoms

One of the reasons that these studies have conflicting results is that each study had a small sample size (about 20-29 women per study). With so few women studied, and the potential variation in the cause of symptoms, it is hard to draw any conclusions. 

If you feel frustrated, you’re not alone — lack of research is one of the reasons Evvy was founded. And though we don’t have a definitive answer on the connection between vestibulodynia and the vaginal microbiome, our vaginal microbiome test can help you get a detailed picture of the types and relative amounts of bacteria and fungi in your vaginal microbiome.

Recurrent symptoms? Meet Evvy's at-home vaginal microbiome test, approved by leading OB-GYNs.
Learn more

Risk factors for vestibulodynia 

Generally, scientists are now leaning towards a neurobiological explanation for vestibulodynia. However, research suggests vestibulodynia may be more likely if you have: 

Recurrent vaginal infections Some evidence suggests pain from vaginal infection (especially yeast infections) may linger after the causative agent is gone. This is thought to be the result of inflammation, but more research is needed to confirm this.

Hormones Genital pain is linked to levels of circulating gonadal hormones, like estrogen. In fact, increasing circulating hormones (like with combined hormonal contraception) can cause changes in the moist, inner lining of the vaginal entrance that make it more sensitive to touch. But decreasing hormones (for example with anovulation, lactation, anorexia, over exercising, and persistent physiological stress) are all linked to vestibulodynia symptoms as well. The decrease in estrogen during menopause might increase your risk for vestibulodynia, but it is more common in women who had vestibulodynia when they were younger and now have a recurrence during menopause

The Vaginismus link Vestibulodynia and vaginismustightening of the vaginal muscles, without meaning to, in a way that makes sex, or inserting a tampon, painful and distressing — are two conditions that are interlinked. Unsurprisingly, tightening of the vagina enough to prevent penetration is often accompanied by pain. 

A genetic predisposition: There is some evidence that vestibulodynia runs in families and people with vestibulodynia have more nerve growth in their genitals. We are only beginning to understand all the genes necessary for normal neuronal signaling. But a few studies have shown that specific genetic mutations can increase your risk for vestibulodynia. Such as certain genetic mutations that might increase your risk of yeast infections or other vulvar infections, genes that can cause “exaggerated inflammatory responses”, or create stronger hormonal responses to oral contraceptives can all impact your chances of developing vestibulodynia. 

How common is vestibulodynia?

Not surprisingly vestibulodynia is probably more common than you’d expect. At least 7% and up to 28% of women in the US have experienced vestibulodynia in their lifetime. 

Not everyone will be comfortable enough to talk about these symptoms with their doctor though. So, on top of all of this, vestibulodynia is most likely underreported. It’s estimated that half of women with vulvodynia do not seek medical help. For those that do, only a fraction will be correctly diagnosed. 

Can vestibulodynia be cured or treated?

The frustration of experiencing chronic pain without an obvious cause is like no other. Often, people question their own sanity, and this can be exacerbated by feeling dismissed, or not believed, when seeking help. But remember, nobody knows or experiences your vagina like you do!

Pain management 

Right now, treatment for vestibulodynia is focused on managing the pain, or reducing the pain, but not solving the underlying cause. Since the underlying causes are unknown at this point, treating the pain is kind of like the next best thing. Though anyone experiencing chronic vulva pain will tell you, this approach falls short by a long margin.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of vestibulodynia, consider bringing up psychotherapy and physical therapy with your doctor! A study that compared both treatments found: 70% (the psychotherapy group) and 80% (the physical therapy group) of patients felt less pain. After a six month follow up, these improvements more or less held on. Plus, both groups felt more able to have sex without stopping because of pain.

Steps to managing vestibulodynia pain include:

Vestibulodynia and mental health 

At least 70% of the time, vestibulodynia is also linked to pain during penetrative sex. Naturally, this can have knock on effects on mental health, and put stress on intimate relationships. 

It’s almost taboo to admit that sex is a big part of relationships (for most people). So while it’s not the be all, and end all, it’s a pretty big deal. Especially when it comes to our own physical, and mental wellbeing. Vestibulodynia can throw a spanner in the works for all of this. As we said before, talking to someone has been shown to help

We don’t talk about our pain enough

And when we do, it’s often labeled a non-issue. Vaginal pain or discomfort simply isn’t taken very seriously and this can have an effect on mental health! Plus, there’s still a huge amount of shame and stigma attached to talking about it. It’s no wonder some of us find it difficult to ask for help. 

But the good news is, surveys that directly ask women about their symptoms lead to higher rates of diagnosis. A great example of this is the first validated vulvodynia questionnaire for self-reporting, created in 2020. 

The science is getting there (slowly). Until then, don’t be silent about your vaginal pain. You deserve help—and Evvy is here to help you.

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