Vulvodynia and the power of the vulva

Click on this image for the history of the vulva in many cultures as a power symbol of political change and protest

Vulvodynia is a medical term for having persistent pain in your vulva that isn’t explained by the usual causes.

You know what is so wierd? I just had gotten so used to the burning, itching and periodic pain, that I thought it was relatively normal. I’d gotten used to having to have sex in very limited ways and to feeling pain after and sometimes during. At times it hasn’t really seemed worth it. No wonder my sex life has fizzled.

Vulvodynia comes in two types. The first is where the woman experiences pain with intercourse, or inserting a tampon or similar, and afterwards, but not the rest of the time. The second kind is when the woman has the first kind of pain, sometimes not as severely, but also a persistent pain or itching at other times.

That’s the kind I have, and now that I know what it is, I can access the wisdom of women all over the world who have it too. Unlike the pain I had as a child, I’m not alone.

I found a list of things that are thought to be involved in vulvodynia and things that make it better and worse and I’m trying them. It’s actually helping.

One of the things that doctors believed about vulvodynia was that it is psychosomatic, caused by being a sexual abuse survivor.  I think that’s demeaning. Of course there are physical effects of being raped, I’ve got the scars to prove it. And of course there are psychological effects that affect how the vagina and vulva feel and perform, particularly in how relaxed and open we feel.

What is demeaning and insulting to the brave women warriors who have survived rape as children is to dismiss our complaints as if because we know the cause it doesn’t need to be cured, like it’s some kind of hopeless case to have a vulva that feels healthy and good, and it is some kind of hopeless case to have a healthy mind and spirit after being ‘damaged’. It’s like we’re in some feudal culture and we’ve been ‘ruined’ by losing our virginity in an unsanctioned way.

I went to see my nurse practitioner, the one who showed me my rape scars last summer. I wasn’t there specifically about my vagina, but after she looked into what I was there about I asked her about the pain and itching. She told me all her tests had been negative for infection, that everything looked fine.  I said “you think this is psychosomatic?” She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no. She said “we’ll you’ve had a hard life”. I said, I had a hard childhood, I’ve had a pretty good life, for the last 20 years, actually”. I hate it when people assume I’m some kind of lifelong victim.  I’ve never been in an abusive relationship as an adult, I’ve never done drugs or abused alcohol, I’ve not been raped or beaten as an adult and I’ve made good choices for myself. 

After I got home from my appointment I did some research. Vulvodynia is thought to be caused by chronic tightening of the muscles of the vagina, which restricts blood flow, causing the pain and itching. There are of course other theories, but I like this one. It looks like everyone wins – psychological: clenching of the vaginal and vulval muscles – physical: restricted blood flow causing persistent pain.

So what part of this allows her to dismiss my valid medical issue?

I’ll tell you what does. Her discomfort with having to help someone who was raped as a tiny child having persistent pain her whole life as a result. In her vagina. People don’t want to think about it. They want me to be crazy. They want it to be something they can discount. It makes it less scary for them.  That a man can rape a child and get away with creates enormous cognitive dissonance for people. It’s nothing that should happen. It’s nothing he should get away with. I agree. But rather than trying to ignore or brush away the effects, I want to resolve them. I’m one of the sanest people I know. I know how to face reality in ways they don’t.

My wife and I are coming up on our ten year anniversary. I joke that it’s actually 40 years in ‘het years’ – kind of like dog years. Because lesbian relationships get little social support, a ten year anniversary is the equivalent of 40 years for a straight couple who have had help and approval from their culture from the beginning, going back as far as high school. How does this apply?

Life is a lot harder without social support. By shunning survivors of abuse, in all the ways our culture shuns us, we inhibit and restrict the healing and change that is necessary to make child rape obsolete. My ally, my nurse practitioner, well meaning and educated, does it, I’ve had a lover tell me, upon looking at a cute picture of myself as a child that “no wonder my father loved me so much”.  I broke up with him soon after. It’s not love. I’m not a victim. Let’s just fix the problem, shall we?

So I’m working on relaxing those muscles, in various ways, on my own and with a little help from my wife. It’s working.

Now was that so hard?

10 thoughts on “Vulvodynia and the power of the vulva”

    1. sworddancewarrior

      Are you a gynecologist? Vulvadynia specialist? I can understand that your own experience might be that you were able to fix this by shifting how you thought about your vagina (which would have some physical effects on relaxation, blood flow and pain) but to say or imply that a person who had a serious injury to her vagina from an assault has the lingering effects of that injury and scarring all in her head is not only incorrect, but mean or intentionally trolling. FFS, I had a biopsy that showed tissue differences. You owe me an apology, Susan/Jane.

  1. My gyno said there’s some connections researched between vulvadynia and oxalates intake. Oxalates are in lots of foods, and whenI have a lot of those foods, my vulvadynia acts up . Look into it, maybe it will help you, too.

    1. Yes, I’ve read about it. Actually I’ve got a physio now who works with biofeedback and vulvadynia. We found the exact places that hurt and she says it’s muscular tension and blood flow. The biofeedback is about identifying the exact muscles and loosening them. So my earlier ideas about blood flow and ‘clenching’ were spot on. As long a I make sure to keep it relaxed it’s doing pretty well now.

  2. Pingback: Free your vulva and the rest will follow. | May We Dance Upon Their Graves

  3. hi there, my daughter is 6 and has been complaining about her vagina hurting for about 5 of those years. I have had her to the best hospital (stollery in edmonton) and many others drs and specialists, but they all say there is nothing wrong. Is it possible that she could have vulvodynia?
    we need answers

    1. Hi Tammy,
      My vulvadynia is a result of an injury, so that’s the type I know best. I’m not a doctor, but I have figured out what works on my own pain. Whatever the cause in your daughter’s case, I think what works for me to make it feel better might work for your daughter.

      I have a squeeze bottle (soft sided with a narrow opening) kind of like a soft-sided water bottle. the soft sided is important because you can squeeze it to get a pressured stream of water. I fill it with water and use it to rinse my vulva and around my vaginal opening after I pee. I used to carry it in my purse as well. I use cold water, which feels good on the inflamed tissue and I rinse thoroughly, with perhaps 750ml of water. At first I did it each and every time I peed, and put the cold pack on my vulva every night, and now that I’m feeling a lot better, I only use the bottle for the first pee of the morning, and if I have a flare-up and use the cold pack very seldom.

      A sitz bath using cold water might also work well to start. You can buy them in most pharmacies. They go on the toilet and function similarly to a bidet.

      The other things I learned were more about how to help my vulva and vagina recover from sexual activity, which was more cold rinsing or cold packs, but your daughter won’t need that for a long time.

      I find my pain is worse in the morning because the urine is more concentrated. Getting your daughter to drink lots of water couldn’t hurt either, as it would dilute the urine, making it less irritating. When the pain is bad, I have used a small gel icepack inserted into a clean cotton sock and put it against my vulva. This eases the pain, as when it is bad, my vulva feels hot and sore, or itchy when it’s less extreme. Does she get worn spots on her underwear from itching?

      There is some belief that vulvadynia is a result of clenching the muscles in the area, reducing blood flow, which over time causes pain. The other theories are a kind of hard to detect fungus (which shows up white if the area is washed with vinegar solution), and an overly sensitive nerve.

      The muscle clenching theory seems to fit my experience the best, but means that the cold should only be used for relief, and that regular application of warm packs might be a preventative treatment to help her to relax those muscles and increase blood flow in the area. If you have a microwave, you can get these cloth bags of rice or grain that you warm up in the microwave, or you could use an electric hot pad set on low, or a hot water bottle. I think doing that regularly might help. I also consciously relax the muscles, which might be tricky to help teach a child to do.

      The standard stuff your doctors probably told you, cotton underwear, making sure she’s dry after a bath ( a blow dryer set on cool) to help prevent infections, avoiding perfumed anything (even detergent) next to her skin is a good idea as well.

      Do you recall that your daughter experienced any vulva or vaginal injury when she was an infant? I’m sorry to have to point this out but – unfortunately, people do horrible things to children and babies, sometimes when their parents are nearby and unawares, and child abusers look as innocent and well meaning as regular people, often more so. Injury wouldn’t have to be from abuse, although that is what I am most familiar with, unfortunately.

      You may wish to have her examined by a forensic gynecologist, from the team that would examine children who have been injured by sexual assault, because they will know what to look like and what healed damage would look like. Children heal quickly and well, so she may not have scarring or it might be subtle. With my own scarring, it wasn’t something that leaped out, and the evidence, although clear once you notice it, is subtle. Doctors are people and people usually have a definite bias against believing that babies can be assaulted, so don’t see the signs unless they specifically look for it. If she has been injured, now is the best time to face it and provide her with the support she’ll need so she can prevent it from affecting her life further. If it is just that she has overly sensitive skin or nerves in her vulva, then I hope that the tips above help manage that.

      I remember being a six year old with a painful vagina. I’m glad your daughter has you to help her figure out how to make it better.

  4. butterflysblog

    Warrior – we seem to be having parallel lives right now. I just posted about my vagina too.

    I really like and agree with your point about the medical community ignoring ‘psychosomatic’ issues.

    A few weeks ago, my marital therapist suggested we try massaging each other. That week, I came down with a terrible backache and it persisted until we decided not to massage each other. When I told the therapist about it, I realized that it was possible that the backache was psychosomatic. She said that somatic symptoms are really just the body’s way of trying to tell us something. It seems like some of the helping professions seem to understand somatic symptoms, but the medical community doesn’t.

    1. True. The body and mind are connected, so we can work on either of them to solve the problem, but sometimes going physical with the solution is empowering. The think is, all physical problems are psychosomatic to one degree or another in that all are affected by stress, and relaxation. Even our perceptions of pain are shaped by psychological forces. It’s like doctors don’t want anything to do with the mind, not realizing they can’t separate that stuff out from any illness.

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