There has been a lot of research that links regular sex to better health. But did you know your vagina can actually become depressed? Is it even fair to call a vagina or vulva depressed? You'd be surprised. It's a condition called vulvodynia, and if you haven't heard of it, you're about to!
What Is Vulvodynia?
"Vulvodynia is chronic pain in the vulva area that doesn't have any clear, identifiable cause. It is described as itchiness, rawness, irritation, and/or stabbing pain," Kristie Overstreet, PhD, clinical sexologist and psychotherapist, told POPSUGAR. "The pain varies in location, severity, and consistency among women."
Pain can manifest in various areas of the vulva, which is the entire external portion of the female genitalia, including the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, and vaginal and urethral openings. It can either be generalized over the entirety or localized to specific places. The pain can make sex, inserting a tampon, riding a bike, or even wearing tight pants excruciatingly painful.
While pain is a symptom of vulvodynia, the condition is considered to be psychologically caused, much like depression.
How Common Is It?
Vulvodynia is more widespread than you would think. Studies show that one in every six women experiences vulvodynia at some point in her life. Dr. Overstreet also said it's important to note that this condition is not linked to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
How Is It Like Depression?
Depression is a mental disorder that affects nearly 16 million adults in the US and is caused by a variety of factors, many having to do with brain chemistry. While it manifests itself with different symptoms, vulvodynia is also psychologically caused.
Much like depression, vulvodynia is a finicky condition that puzzles both those it affects and those who treat it. Dr. Sherry A. Ross, OB-GYN, women's health expert and author of She-ology, told POPSUGAR that "vulvodynia is a confusing and frustrating medical condition for both the healthcare provider and patient. Emotional and psychological support goes hand in hand with medical treatment options."
The road to discovering one's vulvodynia is eerily similar to that of those who experience depression. "Many women go through months or years of suffering before they find a provider who gives them a correct diagnosis. They may experience shame, difficulty with sex, painful sex, frustration, depression, and anxiety due to the effects of this condition. The majority of healthcare providers do not understand or correctly diagnosis vulvodynia. These providers often dismiss the pain or don't provide treatment options for women who are suffering," explained Dr. Ross.
Can It Be Treated?
There is no treatment specifically for vulvodynia, and anything that is used is still pretty experimental. But due to the highly intrinsic connection between the vagina and brain, vulvodynia is often treated with antidepressants and other forms of therapy to adjust the serotonin levels in the brain rather than to address the painful symptoms themselves. Any course of treatment is individualised based on the person's experience with the condition.
Why Is This Condition Stigmatised?
Dr. Ross told POPSUGAR that, much like with more common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, women find it extremely difficult to discuss their vulvodynia for fear of being stigmatized. Many don't want to admit there is anything wrong, so they won't be broken or unlovable, which is especially troubling since, according to Dr. Ross, "vulvodynia can be ongoing and lifelong, disrupting intimacy, personal relationships, and daily life activities."