You might have heard about vaginismus in the context of painful sex. You might have even wondered if you have it. But do you know what it is, what causes it, and what to do if you’re affected? Read on to find out all about it…
What is it, exactly?
Vaginismus is a type of female sexual dysfunction caused by the muscles in and around the vagina going into an involuntary spasm whenever you or someone else attempts to penetrate it. As you’d imagine, this makes it difficult (or impossible) to have sex.
- If it’s always been an issue, it’s called primary vaginismus. If it develops after being able to have pain-free sex in the past, it’s called secondary vaginismus, but this is less common.
- Many women who experience it feel a stinging pain when they have sex, while for others, it’s as if their vagina has clamped shut.
- It doesn’t only affect sex. Women who experience vaginismus are also unlikely to be able to insert a tampon or to have a pap smear.
- It may be accompanied by intense anxiety, even for women who haven’t experienced vaginal pain.
Who does it affect?
It’s thought to affect around two in a thousand women, the vast majority of them straight and cisgender. Although, as with any intimate problem, the real number could be higher.
It usually starts when women are young – between the ages of 15 and 24, and just over half of the people affected are in a relationship.
What causes it?
Researchers still aren’t 100% sure. It seems to be linked to anxiety and anxiety about sex in particular, but researchers say it usually isn’t related to having experienced sexual abuse or other types of trauma. In some cases, there can be a physical component, such as an infection or complications from surgery.
How is it diagnosed?
A doctor will want to hear about your symptoms and may want to examine your vulva and vaginal opening for signs of infection. They may also want to (try to) conduct an internal examination, but if you think this will be too painful, stressful, or just don’t want to, you don’t have to consent. You’re always within your rights to keep your clothes on.
How is it treated?
You might be referred to a sex therapist, to talk about your issues and learn how to manage your anxiety around sex and penetration. Relaxation techniques specifically focused on how to calm the body can help, and your doctor might prescribe anti-anxiety medication.
One of the most common types of treatment is exposure therapy, where you insert dilators (plastic objects, that gradually increase in size) into the vagina. You’d usually start treatment with the help of a medical professional and then be asked to continue at home – either alone or with your partner’s help.
If you have numbness, burning or pain when you’re nottrying to have sex, you might have connective tissue dysfunction, which means you could benefit from internal physiotherapy, to train the vaginal muscles to relax.
Studies show that almost everyone who completes treatment for vaginismus succeeds.
Is there anything else I need to know?
There’s nothing to be ashamed of. According to the Mayo Clinic, many women experience sexual dysfunction at some point in their lives.
While penetrative sex is often the goal of vaginismus treatment, it’s not compulsory, even if you have a partner. As you look for the right solution, remember there are many ways to have a pleasurable sex life (or not, if you don’t want to) – this could be your chance to work out what feels right for you.