Vaginal pain and discomfort can be frustrating and distressing, affecting all aspects of your life including work, exercise, sex and relationships. The pain can range from irritation, dryness or hypersensitivity, to pain and difficulty with any kind of vaginal penetration including use of tampons, a gynaecological exam or sex. Vaginal pain is unfortunately common, with approximately 25% of women experiencing it at some stage of their lives. Despite this, most women rarely seek treatment or support. Treatment may involve a number of modalities, including Chinese medicine, and can help.
Two common causes of vaginal pain are vulvodynia and vaginismus. Vulvodynia describes pain, sensitivity or discomfort in the area around the opening of the vagina and the surrounding tissues. Vaginismus (also known as hypertonic pelvic floor dysfunction) is the involuntary contraction or spasm of the muscles of the vagina and pelvic floor.
For most women, the start of the pain can be traced back to a particular event – an injury or infection, childbirth, menopause or hormonal changes, trauma or relationship issues. Even after the underlying cause is resolved, the pain may persist because the body has become acclimatized to responding in that way. Fear and anticipation of the pain can trigger the physical response – the muscles and tissues of the vagina involuntarily spasm in response to the perceived threat.
In the theory of Chinese medicine, pain, spasm and altered sensations result from the body’s energy (Qi) becoming stuck or blocked. Qi can become blocked from physical injury, but also from emotional imbalance. Treatments aim to restore and invigorate the flow of Qi, calming muscle spasms and reducing pain.
There are a number of theories as to how acupuncture works from a Western perspective. It is thought that treatments trigger a release of natural pain relieving opiates (endorphins) within the body, rebalance pain modulation pathways in the brain, promote blood flow and reduce inflammation, all of which combine to promote healing. The acupuncture points chosen are usually in your hands and feet – don’t worry, I won’t be putting any needles in the affected area.
There are a number of self-care strategies that may help –
~ Switch to a hypoallergenic, fragrance free washing powder for sensitive skin
~ Avoid chemicals or potential irritants to the area, including soap or body wash, deodorant and synthetic underwear
~ Switch to pads (preferably organic cotton) or period undies. Some women find menstrual cups ok to use, but avoid tampons
~ A warm bath with magnesium chloride salts or epsom salts can soothe the area. Again, avoid soaps or fragrances in the bath
~ Choose a natural lubricant – especially avoid parabens, glycerins and synthetic fragrances
Unfortunately, vaginal pain is poorly understood and misdiagnosed by some Western doctors. In my experience, the support of caring health professionals who understand the condition is essential in the management and healing of vaginal dysfunction.