Vulvodynia’s symptoms mostly all relate to pain in the vulva but are specific to different actions involving the vulva. For example, pain when inserting a tampon, pain during sex, pain that is constantly in the background and is worsened when sitting down. Vulvodynia often goes undiagnosed and it is not a sign of cancer nor of personal hygiene.
There are treatments suggested and medicines prescribed to help manage the pain of vulvodynia and make it easier to live with. The medication prescribed can include antidepressants and anti-epilepsy tablets. There is sometimes scepticism about taking tablets for mental health illnesses for controlling pain, however it is to help overcome the nerve damage that causes the body to be less able to manage the pain.
Physiotherapy may be recommended to help exercise the pelvic muscles and relax vaginal muscles. This will help limit the impact that vulvodynia can have on your daily physical activities from sitting at your desk to having sex. Counselling and therapy are also recommended to allow those living with vulvodynia to work through any anxieties that are affecting their relationships, sexual interactions and thoughts on pregnancy. All of these means of treatment and vulvodynia management can really alleviate the difficulties and fears of living with the condition. There is a cloud of shame and embarrassment that surrounds gynaecological health and this can easily compound to depression and a decline in your mental health due to feeling isolated and unable to express the daily impact that this condition can have.
You can also buy over-the-counter vaginal lubricants and aqueous creams that will aid discomfort and make having sex more comfortable and enjoyable. If you do feel that there are any symptoms you have of this condition, then please do speak to your GP. In terms of making any adjustments that can be done before seeing your GP and getting a diagnosis or prescription, you can wear cotton, loose fitting underwear and avoid scented products that may cause thrush which will only increase discomfort.
On the infographic you will see on our Instagram page, the description of the condition says that vulvodynia is ‘persistent, ‘unexplained’ pain in the vulva’. I want to talk a little bit more about why I have put the word unexplained in quotation marks. Very often when it comes to those with a uterus trying to seek medical help for irregularities with their periods, vulvas or fertility, a sudden dead-end creep up in the investigation process, justified by the fact that the condition is simply ‘unexplained.’ It is no secret that health issues affecting women are under-researched and not widely discussed. This isn’t a new problem. Less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated solely to reproductive health, despite the fact that one in three women in the UK will suffer from a reproductive or gynaecological health problem. There is five times more research into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than into premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women. In the United States, a global leader in medical research, women were not required to be a part of research trials until 1993, when the National Institutes of Health made the decision to include them. Despite women existing for forever, this exclusion was justified by the excuse that women’s bodies are "too complex due to fluctuating hormones" so it made it difficult to accommodate their presence in clinical trials.
Now some could argue that vulvodynia isn’t the condition to make this case for, but why should any condition be accepted without explanation? There could well be research going on right now to uncover the true extent of vulvodynia’s causes. But women’s pain being dismissed isn’t new. Lynn Enright in her book vagina: a re-education, depicts her grim hysteroscopy experience where the doctor was not concerned with how much pain she was in. A procedure that, in New York, is only given under general anaesthetic due to the severity of the pain, the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommend simply using local anaesthetic. You are expected to communicate if the pain is too much, whilst literally on the theatre table. Pains linked to periods are masked constantly and it’s always seen as an exaggeration, so it’s no wonder that we try and tolerate as much pain as we can so as not inconvenience anybody, which is basically what Enright was doing.
I wanted to start the gynaecoloday campaign not just to show off my ability to coin a new term out of mashing two words together, but to spark the conversation around gynaecological health and dismantle the stigma and isolation that are so interlinked to it. Having a uterus does not negate our right to know what is going on with our bodies and it’s not a reason to assume that we are just ‘overly sensitive to pain’. If you ever have any symptoms or changes in your body, especially linked to your period and vulva, do not hesitate to go to the doctors. And if that doctor is unhelpful and you don’t feel listened to, although it will suck at first and is somewhat demoralising, ask to see a different GP next time, or even change to a different practice. Whilst it isn’t okay that these are the steps we have to take just to meet a GP that takes us seriously, you do deserve to be listened to and taken seriously.
For more information on vulvodynia, these sites may be helpful:
And the book I mentioned, that so perfectly encapsulates life with a vagina whilst also educating us on our body in a way that proves how miserably the English education system has failed at teaching us about our vaginas and uteruses, is Vagina: A Re-education, by Lynn Enright.
If you have anything you’d like to know more about, maybe I can help! Drop me a message at email@example.com