Dyspareunia is painful sexual intercourse due to medical or psychological causes. The symptoms are significantly more common in women than in men. Internationally dyspareunia has been estimated to affect between 8-21% of women sometime in their lives. The causes are often reversible, even when long-standing, but self-perpetuating pain or fear of pain can cause continued distress after the original cause has been removed.
An evaluation of dyspareunia assesses physical, psychological, and relationship factors. There are numerous physical conditions that can contribute to pain during sexual encounters, and so a careful physical examination and medical history are always indicated with such complaints. The pain can be acquired or congenital. It can primarily be on the external surface of the genitalia or deeper in the pelvis upon deep pressure against the cervix. It can affect a small portion of the vulva or vagina or be generalized to most of the surface. Understanding the duration, location, and nature of the pain is important in identifying the causes of the pain.
Commonly multiple underlying causes contribute to the pain. Treatment is determined by the underlying causes. Many women experience relief when physical causes are identified and treated. Even when the pain can be reproduced during a physical examination, the possible role of psychological factors in either causing or maintaining the pain must be acknowledged and dealt with in treatment.
Women who experience pain with attempted intercourse describe their pain in a variety of ways which reflects how many different and overlapping causes there are for dyspareunia. The location, nature, and time course of the pain help to understand potential causes and treatments.
Some women describe superficial pain at the opening of the vagina or surface of the genitalia when penetration is initiated. Other women feel deeper pain in the vault of the vagina or deep within the pelvis upon deeper penetration. Some women feel pain in more than one of these places. Determining whether the pain is more superficial or deep is important in understanding what may be causing a woman's pain.
Some women have always experienced pain with intercourse from their very first attempt. Other women begin to feel pain with intercourse abruptly after an injury or infection or cyclically with menstruation. Sometimes the pain begins with low severity and then increases over time. Sometimes the pain not only occurs during intercourse but is experienced all of the time.
When pain occurs, the woman experiencing dyspareunia may be distracted from feeling pleasure and excitement. Both vaginal lubrication and vaginal dilation decrease. When the vagina is dry and undilated, thrusting of the penis is painful. Women especially with longer standing dyspareunia describe fear of being in pain making their discomfort with intercourse worse. Even after the original source of pain has disappeared, a woman may feel pain simply because she expects pain. Fear, avoidance, and psychologic distress around attempting intercourse can become large parts of a woman's experience of dyspareunia.
Physical examination of the vulva (external genitalia) may reveal signs of irritation including lesions, thin skin, ulcerations or discharge associated with vulvovaginal infections or vaginal atrophy. An internal pelvic exam may reveal lesions on the cervix or anatomic variations that are associated with dyspareunia.
When there are no visible findings on vulvar exam that would suggest a cause for superficial dyspareunia, a cotton-swab test may be performed to assess for localized provoked vulvodynia as the cause. A cotton tip applicator is applied at several points around the opening of the vagina and a woman reports whether she experiences pain on a scale from 0-10.
In women, common causes for discomfort during sex include
Pain from tissue injury after trauma, surgery or birth. For example acutely during healing or later with scar tissue (following episiotomy), or from surgical complications, including female genital mutilation, when the introitus has become too small for normal penetration (often worsened by scarring)
Estrogen deficiency is a particularly common cause of sexual pain complaints related to vaginal atrophy among postmenopausal women and may be a result of similar changes in menstruating women on hormonal birth control. Estrogen deficiency is associated with lubrication inadequacy, which can lead to painful friction during intercourse.Vaginal dryness is often reported by lactating women as well. Women undergoing radiation therapy for pelvic malignancy often experience severe dyspareunia due to the atrophy of the vaginal walls and their susceptibility to trauma. Vaginal dryness is sometimes seen in Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder which characteristically attacks the exocrine glands that produce saliva and tears.
Pain from bladder irritation: Dyspareunia is a symptom of a disease called interstitial cystitis (IC). Patients may struggle with bladder pain and discomfort during or after sex. For men with IC, pain occurs at the moment of ejaculation and is focused at the tip of the penis. For women with IC, pain usually occurs the following day, the result of painful, spasming pelvic floor muscles. Interstitial cystitis patients also struggle with urinary frequency and/or urinary urgency
Vulvodynia: Vulvodynia is a diagnosis of exclusion in which women experience either generalized or localized vulvar pain most often described as burning without physical evidence of other causes on exam. Pain can be constant or only when provoked (as with intercourse). Localized provoked vulvodynia is the most recent terminology for what used to be called vulvar vestibulitis when the pain is localized to the vaginal opening.
Conditions that affect the surface of the vulva including LSEA (lichen sclerosus et atrophicus), or xerosis (dryness, especially after the menopause)
In men, as in women, there are a number of physical factors that may cause sexual discomfort. Pain is sometimes experienced in the testicular or glans area of the penis immediately after ejaculation. Infections of the prostate, bladder, or seminal vesicles can lead to intense burning or itching sensations following ejaculation. Men suffering from interstitial cystitis may experience intense pain at the moment of ejaculation. Gonorrheal infections are sometimes associated with burning or sharp penile pains during ejaculation. Urethritis or prostatitis can make genital stimulation painful or uncomfortable. Anatomic deformities of the penis, such as exist in Peyronie's disease, may also result in pain during coitus. One cause of painful intercourse is due to the painful retraction of a too-tight foreskin, occurring either during the first attempt at intercourse or subsequent to tightening or scarring following inflammation or local infection. Another cause of painful intercourse is due tension in a short and slender frenulum, frenulum breve, as the foreskin retracts on entry to the vagina irrespective of lubrication. In one study frenulum breve was found in 50% of patients who presented with dyspareunia. During vigorous or deep or tight intercourse or masturbation, small tears may occur in the frenum of the foreskin and can bleed and be very painful and induce anxiety which can become chronic if left unresolved. If stretching fails to ease the condition, and uncomfortable levels of tension remain, a frenuloplasty procedure may be recommended. Frenuloplasty is an effective procedure, with a high chance of avoiding circumcision, giving good functional results and patient satisfaction. The psychological effects of these conditions, while little understood, are real, and are visible in literature and art.
Dyspareunia is a condition that has many causes and is not a diagnosis of itself. To reflect this, dyspareunia has been recently combined with vaginismus into "Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder" in the DSM V. Criteria for Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder include multiple episodes of difficulty with vaginal penetration, pain associated with intercourse attempts, anticipation of pain due to attempted intercourse,and tensing of the pelvis in response to attempted penetration. In order to meet criteria for this disorder the symptoms must be experienced for at least 6 months and cause "significant distress."
The differential diagnosis for dyspareunia is long as a result of its complicated and multifactorial nature. Often there are physiologic conditions underlying the pain, as well as psychosocial components that all must be assessed to find appropriate treatment that will provide relief. A differential diagnosis of underlying physical causes can be guided by whether the pain is deep or superficial:
Superficial Dyspareunia without visible exam findings: When no other physical etiology is found the diagnosis of vulvodynia should be considered. Vaginal atrophy may also not be seen clearly on exam but commonly affects postmenopausal women and is generally associated with estrogen deficiency.
Dyspareunia is a complex problem and frequently has a multifactorial aetiology. A new way has been recently suggested to define dyspareunia by dissecting it into primary, secondary, and tertiary sources of pain.
The treatment for pain with intercourse depends on what is causing the pain. After proper diagnosis one or more treatments for specific causes may be necessary.
For pain thought to be due to yeast or fungal infections, a clinician may prescribe mycogen cream (nystatin and triamcinolone acetonide) which can treat both a yeast infection and associated painful inflammation and itching because it contains both an antifungal and a steroid.
For pain thought to be due to post-menopausal vaginal dryness, estrogen treatment can be used.
For women with diagnostic criteria for endometriosis, medications or surgery are possible options.
In addition, the following may reduce discomfort with intercourse:
Clearly explaining to the patient what has happened, including identifying the sites and causes of pain. Making clear that the pain will, in almost all cases, disappear over the time or at least will be greatly reduced. If there is a partner, also explaining to him or her the causes and treatment and encouraging him or her to be supportive.
Encouraging the patient to learn about her body, to explore her own anatomy and learn how she likes to be caressed and touched.
Encouraging the couple to add pleasant, sexually exciting experiences to their regular interactions, such as bathing together (in which the primary goal is not cleanliness), or mutual caressing without intercourse. In couples where a woman is preparing to receive vaginal intercourse, such activities tend to increase both natural lubrication and vaginal dilation, both of which decrease friction and pain. Prior to intercourse, oral sex may relax and lubricate the vagina (providing both partners are comfortable with it).
Use of water-soluble sexual or surgical lubricant during intercourse. Discourage petroleum jelly. Lubricant should be liberally applied (two tablespoons full) to both the penis and the orifice. A folded bath towel under the receiving partner's hips helps prevent spillage on bedclothes.
Instructing the receiving partner to take the penis of the penetrating partner in their hand and control insertion themselves, rather than letting the penetrating partner do it.
For those who have pain on deep penetration because of pelvic injury or disease: Recommending a change in coital position to one admitting less penetration. In women receiving vaginal penetration: maximum vaginal penetration is achieved when the receiving woman lies on her back with her pelvis rolled up off the bed, compressing her thighs tightly against her chest with her calves over the penetrating partner's shoulders. Minimal penetration occurs when a receiving woman lies on her back with her legs extended flat on the bed and close together while her partner's legs straddle hers. A device has also been described for limiting penetration.
Dyspareunia (from Greek, δυσ-, dys- "bad" and πάρευνος, pareunos "bedfellow", meaning "badly mated"). The previous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-IV, stated that the diagnosis of dyspareunia is made when the patient complains of recurrent or persistent genital pain before, during, or after sexual intercourse that is not caused exclusively by lack of lubrication or by vaginal spasm (vaginismus). After the text revision of the fourth edition of the DSM, a debate arose, with arguments to recategorize dyspareunia as a pain disorder instead of a sex disorder, with Charles Allen Moser, a physician, arguing for the removal of dyspareunia from the manual altogether. The most recent version, the DSM V has grouped dyspareunia under the diagnosis of Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder.
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