Sex can be fun, intimate, exciting, underwhelming, awkward, and, for some women, extremely painful — maybe even impossible. That’s especially the case for women who suffer from vaginismus, which Healthline defines as a condition where the vaginal muscles involuntarily or persistently contract when vaginal penetration is attempted. (It can happen outside the context of sexual penetration too, including when a woman is touched near the vaginal area, when she’s attempting to use a tampon, or during a pelvic exam.)
Here’s what you need to know about the condition, and what to do if you think you may have it.
It can pop up any time
Some women encounter the symptoms of vaginismus the first time they try to have penetrative sex. Others develop it after menopause — experts say the drop in estrogen levels cause a lack of vaginal lubrication and elasticity, leading to vaginismus in some women. 18 percent of vaginismus patients are under the age of 25, 53 percent are between the ages of 26 and 35, 26 percent are between 36 and 50, and 9 percent are over 51.
Every case is different
Vaginismus has been linked to sexual trauma and abuse, physical damage from childbirth and surgery, past painful intercourse, and emotional factors, like fear of pregnancy. But experts aren’t exactly sure why vaginismus happens, just that there’s a link between the symptoms and anxiety and fear surrounding sex. But which came first, the anxiety or the pain, isn’t entirely clear.
There are also different types of vaginismus: primary, in which the condition has always been present; secondary, which develops after a woman has experienced normal penetrative sex in the past; global, in which it’s always present and triggered by any object; and situational, which happens only in certain situations, like during sex but not during pelvic exams. Every instance is “normal,” and all worth seeking help for.
It’s not rare
Approximately two out of every 1,000 women reportedly suffer from vaginismus, and that’s only counting those who have actually sought help from their doctors. Some experts think that number is probably higher, due to the number of women who likely suffer in silence. In addition to that, some women also get a wrong diagnosis and never get properly treated — or counted in the statistics.
It’s not a death sentence for your sex life
Though some women do experience anxiety and shame around sex when dealing with the condition, vaginismus doesn’t mean there’s a lack of arousal. Plenty of women with the condition still want sexual pleasure and have orgasms — just instead of vaginal penetration, many of them stick with oral sex, masturbation, and other forms of external sexual stimulation.
There are treatments available
You don’t have to just deal with vaginismus — in fact, it’s considered one of the most successfully treated female sexual disorders. Possible treatments include pelvic floor control exercises, therapy, and dilators that aim to reduce sensitivity and increase comfort. These can be done alone or with a partner, and combination of approaches is usually prescribed. Research has shown success rates that range from 75 percent to 100 percent with failures usually due to women dropping out of the study without completing treatment.
Bottom line: there’s plenty of shame surrounding sexual dysfunction disorders, but you deserve happy, pain-free sex. If you’re experiencing symptoms of what you think is vaginismus, talk to your doctor — it’s likely easily treated with a little time and patience.