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Vaginismus, sometimes anglicized vaginism, is the physical or psychological condition that affects a woman's ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual intercourse, insertion of tampons or menstrual cups, and the penetration involved in gynecological examinations (pap tests). This is presumed to be the result of an involuntary vaginal muscle spasm, which makes any kind of vaginal penetration—including sexual intercourse—painful or impossible. While there is a lack of evidence to definitively identify which muscle is responsible for the spasm, the pubococcygeus muscle, sometimes referred to as the "PC muscle", is most often suggested. Other muscles such as the levator ani, bulbocavernosus, circumvaginal, and perivaginal muscles have also been suggested.
A woman suffering from vaginismus does not consciously control the spasm. The vaginismic reflex can be compared to the response of the eye shutting when an object comes towards it. The severity of vaginismus, as well as the pain during penetration (including sexual penetration), varies from woman to woman.
A woman is said to have primary vaginismus when she has never been able to have penetrative sex or experience vaginal penetration without pain. It is commonly discovered in teenagers and women in their early twenties, as this is when many young women in the Western world first attempt to use tampons, have penetrative sex, or undergo a Pap smear. Women with vaginismus may be unaware of the condition until they attempt vaginal penetration. A woman may be unaware of the reasons for her condition.
A few of the main factors that may contribute to primary vaginismus include:
Vaginismus has been classified by Lamont according to the severity of the condition. He describes four degrees of vaginismus: In first degree vaginismus, the patient has spasm of the pelvic floor that can be relieved with reassurance. In second degree, the spasm is present but maintained throughout the pelvis even with reassurance. In third degree, the patient elevates the buttocks to avoid being examined. In fourth degree vaginismus (also known as grade 4 vaginismus), the most severe form of vaginismus, the patient elevates the buttocks, retreats and tightly closes the thighs to avoid examination. Pacik expanded the Lamont classification to include a fifth degree in which the patient experiences a visceral reaction such as sweating, hyperventilation, palpitations, trembling, shaking, nausea, vomiting, losing consciousness, wanting to jump off the table, or attacking the doctor. The Lamont classification continues to be used to the present and allows for a common language among researchers and therapists.
A simplified and more versatile version of the classification includes symptoms that vary over four ranges. The first involves minor discomfort that may diminish during inter course. In the second range, burning and tightness persist. In the third, entry and movement are painful, and in the fourth penetration is impossible and forced entry is extremely painful.
Although the pubococcygeus muscle is commonly thought to be the primary muscle involved in vaginismus, Pacik identified two additionally-involved spastic muscles in treated patients under sedation. These include the entry muscle (bulbocavernosum) and the mid-vaginal muscle (puborectalis). Spasm of the entry muscle accounts for the common complaint that patients often report when trying to have intercourse: "It's like hitting a brick wall".
Secondary vaginismus occurs when a woman who has previously been able to achieve penetration develops vaginismus. This may be due to physical causes such as a yeast infection or trauma during childbirth, while in some cases it may be due to psychological causes, or to a combination of causes. The treatment for secondary vaginismus is the same as for primary vaginismus, although, in these cases, previous experience with successful penetration can assist in a more rapid resolution of the condition. Peri-menopausal and menopausal vaginismus, often due to a drying of the vulvar and vaginal tissues as a result of reduced estrogen, may occur as a result of "micro-tears" first causing sexual pain then leading to vaginismus.
Further factors that may contribute to either Secondary or Primary Vaginismus include:
True epidemiological studies of vaginismus have not been done, as diagnosis would require painful examinations that such women would most likely avoid. Data available is primarily reported statistics from clinical settings.
A study of vaginismus in women in Morocco and Sweden found a prevalence of 6%. 18-20% of women in British and Australian studies were found to have manifest dyspareunia, while the rate among elderly British women was as low as 2%.
A 1990 study of women presenting to sex therapy clinics found reported vaginismus rates of between 12% and 17%, while a random sampling and structured interview survey conducted in 1994 by National Health and Sexual Life Survey documented 10%-15% of women reported that in the past six months they had experienced pain during intercourse.
The most recent study-based estimates of vaginismus incidence range from 5% to 47% of people presenting for sex therapy or complaining of sexual problems, with significant differences across cultures (see Reissing et al. 1999; Nusbaum 2000; Oktay 2003). It seems likely that a society's expectations of women's sexuality may particularly impact on these sufferers.
Curiously, a website boldly titled vaginismus.com offers that only 2 in 1000 women experience vaginismus. They also mention that, because of social norms and personal embarrassment, many women who have the condition may not report or identify as such. Additionally, many health care providers do not keep statistics on those women who do come forward and seek help.
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to vaginismus. These may be physical or psychological, and the treatment required depends on the individual. As each case is different, an individualized approach to treatment is useful. The condition will not necessarily become more severe if left untreated, unless the woman is continuing to attempt penetration, despite feeling pain.In this case, the condition becomes self reinforcing, trapping the woman in the Cycle of Pain.
According to the Cochrane Collaboration review of the scientific literature, "In spite of encouraging results reported from uncontrolled case series there is very limited evidence from controlled trials concerning the effectiveness of treatments for vaginismus. Further trials are needed to compare therapies with waiting list control and with other therapies." Although few controlled trials have been carried out, many serious scientific studies have tested and supported the efficacy of the treatment of vaginismus. In all cases where the systematic desensitization method was used, success rates were approximately 90% or better. For an example of one of these studies, see Nasab, M., & Farnoosh, Z.; or for a basic review, see Reissing's literature review (links below). A Dutch study showed that many women were subsequently able to be penetrated, but far fewer women actually enjoyed being penetrated.
According to Ward and Ogden's qualitative study on the experience of vaginismus for women (1994), the three most common contributing factors to vaginismus are fear of painful sex; the belief that sex is wrong or shameful (often the case with patients who had a strict religious upbringing); and traumatic early childhood experiences (not necessarily sexual in nature).
Vaginismus patients are twice as likely to have a history of childhood sexual interference and held less positive attitudes about their sexuality, whereas no correlation was noted for lack of sexual knowledge or (non-sexual) physical abuse.
For the majority of women with vaginismus, the psychological aspects must be addressed alongside the physical manifestations. Some women, especially those with secondary vaginismus, may rely on a physical rather than psychological treatment and also be successful. There are emotional difficulties associated with vaginismus, even for women whose vaginismus has a purely physical cause, which can include low self-esteem, relationship issues, continuing fear of penetration, and depression.
Sensate Focusing may also serve as a powerful tool for those uncomfortable with their or their partner’s bodies. The technique may also help vaginismus stemming from trust issues, incorrect education about sex, and worries about performance or achieving orgasm. Neither penetration nor orgasm are the main foci of the technique; rather, it was designed to help patients become comfortable with the sensations of sexual arousal. It is also well-suited to practicing at home, with only one’s partner, and thus may be utilized even by those with strict religious or cultural beliefs.
A pelvic physical therapist can assess hypertonic pelvic muscles that often affect and/or cause Vaginismus through the implementation of a multi-modal approach in treatment.
Pelvic physical therapy involves both external and internal modalities. Internal treatment is achieved by the insertion of one finger into the vagina in order to palpate internal muscles, and assess any connective tissue restrictions or "knots" also known as myofascial trigger points. If a vaginal dilator is used as alternative treatment, then no physical intervention is required as the vaginal dilator replaces the need for finger insertion which may be more suited for people with certain religious or cultural beliefs.
Treatment either involves the use of vaginal dilators that are probes which stretch open the tissue. They come in different sizes up to the size of a penis and are used at home.
Often, when faced with a patient having painful intercourse, a gynecologist will recommend Kegel exercises and provide some additional lubricants. Unfortunately, strengthening the muscles that unconsciously tighten during vaginismus may be extremely counter-intuitive for some patients. Also, vaginismus has not been shown to effect a woman’s ability to produce lubrication, thus providing lubricants may be extraneous to the actual condition.
Botulinum toxin A (Botox) has been considered as a treatment option, under the idea of temporarily reducing the hypertonicity of the pelvic floor muscles. Although no random controlled trials have been done with this treatment, experimental studies with small samples have shown it to be effective, with sustained positive results through 10 months. Similar in its mechanism of treatment, lidocaine has also been tried as an experimental option.
Anxiolytics and antidepressants are other pharmacotherapies that have been offered to patients in conjunction with other psychotherapy modalities, or if these patients experience high levels of anxiety from their condition. Results from these types of pharmacologic therapies have not been consistent.
If a woman suspects she has vaginismus, sexual penetration is likely to remain painful or truly impossible until her vaginismus is addressed. This is a highly frustrating condition, as other people, including doctors, may speculate negatively on the origin or existence of her difficulties. Vaginismus does not mean that a woman does not want intercourse or does not love her partner. Women with vaginismus may be able to engage in a variety of other sexual activities, as long as penetration is avoided. Sexual partners of vaginismic women may come to believe that vaginismic women do not want to engage in penetrative sex at all, though this may not be true for most such women. There is currently no indication that vaginismus reduces the sexual drive or arousal of affected women, and as such it is likely that many vaginismic women wish to engage in penetrative sex to the same degree as unaffected women, but are deterred by the pain and emotional distress that accompanies each attempt. Psychological pressure to "perform" sexually or become aroused quickly with a partner can deter the sufferer from future attempts and/or cause her vaginismus to become more severe.
A woman who is interested in having (or, at minimum, willing to have) intercourse, and finds that her vagina responds with a reflex that makes intercourse impossible, is likely to experience a wide range of emotions, from amazement to grief to embarrassment. Some women may already have negative associations with their genitals, including fears that their genitals are ugly, dirty, or sinful.
These associations can lead to negative emotions arising during any kind of sexual expression, including masturbation, and these emotions can take time to process. Feelings of shame, inadequacy or a fear of being "defective" can be deeply troubling. If multiple attempts at penetration are made before treating vaginismus, it may lead to fear of sexual intercourse, and worsen the amount of pain experienced with each subsequent attempt. Relaxation, patience and self-acceptance are vital to a pleasurable experience.