What is Vulvodynia? A Mind Body Perspective

By Lorraine Faehndrich

Vulvo what?

Vulvodynia is chronic vulvar pain that has no known medical cause.

It affects women of every age, but seems to predominantly affect women from the ages of 18 – 50.

The symptoms include burning, stinging, aching, soreness, throbbing, rawness, and itching in the vulva, as well as painful intercourse.  It can last from months to years.  The symptoms can be generalized or specific, constant or intermittent – triggered by touch or activities such as sitting, walking, biking, wearing tight clothing, and having sex.

Vulvodynia symptoms can come on slowly or suddenly. They can be triggered by trauma, nerve injury, yeast infection, prolonged antibiotic use, or a history of sexual abuse.

However it shows up, this vulvar pain syndrome significantly impacts a woman’s life.

It interferes not only with her ability to have intimate relationships and engage in normal activities like walking and wearing clothing, but it can keep her in bed for days at a time with pain that no doctor has been able to help her relieve, and that she is often embarrassed or ashamed to tell anyone about (including her boss, coworkers, family, and friends).

For these reasons, and because the vulva and vagina are such a huge part of a woman’s sense of identity, power and creativity, vulvodynia can lead to severe emotional pain, anxiety, depression, and a sense of isolation.

Because vulvodynia has just recently been recognized as a pain syndrome, there are still many health care providers that are not aware of its existence.

When I experienced vulvar pain in 2010, not one of the doctors I saw ever mentioned vulvodynia.  They were stumped by my symptoms.  There was no identifiable cause (ie. yeast or bacteria) so in their view there was nothing wrong.  One gynecologist recommended trying massive doses of antibiotics (for a year!) in case it was bacterial – even though there was no evidence that it was.  Luckily, I did not take her advice!

Lack of awareness on the part of healthcare providers combined with women’s shame around having and talking about their symptoms makes it very difficult to accurately determine how many women are actually suffering with vulvodynia.

According to Web MD, “Estimates of women with vulvodynia range from 200,000 to six million.”

That’s quite a range!

As a mind body coach specializing in the treatment of pelvic and sexual pain in women, my guess is that the reality is much closer to 6 million than it is to 200,000.

Researchers estimate that up to 33% of women (1/3) will have pelvic pain during their lifetime.

Up until now, the medical treatments for Vulvodynia have primarily been limited to the avoidance of vulvar irritants, use of oral and topical medicines, pelvic floor physical therapy, vulvar injections, and surgery.  Most of which have not been effective at achieving long term (or any) pain relief for many women.

Whatever the numbers, it is clear that there are a lot of women suffering from chronic vulvar pain, and equally clear that so far western medicine has not found any consistently effective treatments for this pain syndrome.

Why?

Because our medical system focuses on mechanistic causes and the underlying cause of vulvodynia (in a large majority of cases) is not purely physical.  It is mental, spiritual, and emotional.

Vulvodynia is most often caused by what Dr. John Sarno has identified as TMS or Mind Body Syndrome.

Mind Body Syndrome is characterized by the fact that there is no irreversible tissue damage.  The underlying physiological processes that are causing the pain are driven by thoughts and emotions.  Many pain syndromes, chronic pains ( including back, knee, foot and hip pain), migraines, headaches, and other syndromes – like chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and interstitial cystitis can also be caused by Mind Body Syndrome.

This doesn’t mean the symptoms aren’t real.

If you’ve been diagnosed with Vulvodynia, you know very well that your symptoms ARE real.

In fact, women who experience vulvar pain almost always have additional physical symptoms, like chronically tensed and contracted pelvic floor muscles (ie. pelvic floor dysfunction), trigger points and myofascial tension, which all inhibit blood flow to the nerves and tissues in the pelvis and cause pain.

When I say that the cause is not physical, what I am saying is that the physiological pain and other symptoms are actually being caused by thoughts and suppressed emotions, and the impact those have on the brain and nervous system, and until those underlying patterns are addressed, the pain will not go away – no matter how many medications or surgeries are tried.

Stressful thoughts and unfelt emotions cause chronic physical tension and activation of the nervous system.

So, if you have trauma that you haven’t healed, emotions (present or past) that you are not acknowledging, if your life is out of alignment with your soul’s desires, if you’re under a lot of stress, feeling worried, anxious, or depressed, it physically affects your body.

Just like when you’re embarrassed you blush and when you’re afraid your heart races.  Thoughts and emotions trigger a physiological response in your body.

And until you address this underlying cause, unravel your thoughts, feel your emotions, release the tension, and allow your pain to guide you, it won’t go away.

The good news is though, that once you do, it will.  And not only will you heal your body, you’ll develop increased self awareness, attain a greater understanding of your brain and body, unravel the issues that are causing the pain, and end up living a richer, more vibrant, more joyful life.

If you’re suffering with Vulvodynia or Pelvic Pain, a Mind Body approach, that includes healing your relationship with your body, learning how to allow and process your emotions in healthy ways; owning, loving, and embracing your vulva and vagina; breathing and awareness; in addition to stretching, relaxation and massage of chronically tensed pelvic floor muscles, can not only relieve pelvic pain, but also create radiant health, vibrant energy, and outrageous levels of confidence, creativity, and joy.

The way I see what I would describe as this current epidemic of Vulvodynia and Female Pelvic Pain, is as the beginning of a huge shift.

A shift that will reconnect women to their bodies, their vaginas, their emotions, and their souls, and as a result not only heal the women who are currently suffering, but all of us.

If you’re suffering with Vulvodynia, discouraged and overwhelmed because you’re not getting better, and afraid of your symptoms and how they are going to affect the rest of your life, you are not alone, and you can relieve your pain.

Your body is communicating with you.

Are you ready to listen?

If you’ve been suffering with pelvic or sexual pain I invite you to learn more about my Healing Female Pain program.  This cutting-edge and proven mind body pain relief program is designed specifically to help women relieve vulvodynia and other types of chronic pelvic pain.

Learn more here.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and answer any of your questions in the comments below.

I’m always happy to hear from you!

10 Comments

  1. issy

    Hi Lorraine
    Im Issy 62 from England
    I fully understand the thought and pain body /mind and flight and fight concepts. Have had Fibromyalgia and IBS for 10 years and vulvodynia for two and try to be positive and to meditate and relax etc etc nothing works .I research lots, see a homeopath and a reflexologist. I just read your list of things to do to find pleasure. I started to type why none of those work for me and realise how negative that sounds so just to say my fibro pain and vulvodynia stop me doing physical stuff I do love reading but sitting is so hard . Also fibro fog makes it difficult to concentrate. Im typing this and knowing how negative it sounds but its realistic to me. Im sitting here at the computer hardly able to sit because of the vulva pain and if I stay any longer the fibro pain across the shoulders will kick in. I have meditation cd’s and do the tensing and relaxing exercises and deep breathing. I know being soul carer for three dementia parents/inlaws and one ill cancer took a toll some fifteen years or so back and doctors think this was what brought on the Fibro. I am trying to move house and get back to my hometown friends and family in this housing market it isnt happening I know this is a stress issue also but its something i cannot resolve and hard as I try living where I am i am not happy. So i understand this is all negative and the pain and brain feed of this but have tried similar ideas to yours before and nothing works. Im not good at guided meditation I have never imagined hearing water feeling sun on my face seeing the blue sky it doesnt happen. I do enjoy LYING down and just listening to meditaion music and one particular hypnotherapist whose cd;s I have and I do enjoy singing and have joined a choir . Ok well I just wondered if you would have any ideas how i can stop these thoughts and negations and implement any of your ideas where in the past they havent worked . Sorry to go on at such a great length . Thought you needed to know the background. Best wishes Issy

    Reply
    • Lorraine

      Hi Issy.
      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and for asking your questions! I really appreciate them. I’m sorry that you are experiencing so much pain right now, and I know that it is difficulat not to think negatively when you are. It sounds like you are already doing so many great things for yourself and it must be extremely frustrating and discouraging that it’s not working for you. Without talking with you I can’t know for sure what is going on, but I’ll share a few ideas with you that I hope will help. I find that the underlying issue, in almost every case that needs to be addressed, and often isn’t addressed adequately, is learning how to feel, allow, and process emotions (present and past) in a healthy way. Beginning to think more positively and meditate and relax are a fantastic start, and an important piece of the healing process – as are many of the other tools you are using including breathing, visualization, reflexology, etc. But, without learning how to become aware of and feel the, often unconscious, emotions and discover your patterns of responding to them, the tension in your body will continue to be retriggered no matter how much positive thinking, reflexology, or meditation you do. I will be writing more about emotions in upcoming blog posts, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you’d like to schedule a complimentary consultation so I can help address your issues more specifically please contact me. I’d be happy to talk with you. Also, if you haven’t signed up for the Mind Body Alchemy Starter kit I highly recommend that. The Allowing Relaxation exercise does not require any imagining of things that aren’t there. It is the first tool I start all my clients with because it teaches you how to become aware of and allow all the sensations in your body, even the uncomfortable ones – and that is the first critical step to allowing and feeling your emotions.
      Wishing you all the best and tons of relief!
      Warmly, Lorraine

      Reply
  2. Kara

    Lorrainne
    Thank you for your insight. I have been actively doctoring for over a year. I have had severe pain for 8-10 years. It has been reccommended that I attend a course like yours. You seem to understand the type of pain we are going through.
    Again, thank you for understanding.
    Kara

    Reply
    • Lorraine

      Hi Kara. You’re welcome! Thank you for your comment. Warm Wishes, Lorraine

      Reply
  3. Jay

    Hey,

    I’ve had this vulvodynia problem for over 4 years now. Emotions do make a difference, for sure. I am starting to accept that I will not be fully healed ever but not feel overly sad, angry or tragic about it. I make adaptations to my life that make this problem much more bearable. Believe me, I would love to have it gone. If it cannot be healed, at the very least (or most, really) I can make the most of all the wonderful things I have in my life. I need to understand and respect my body’s limitations, and live my life to the fullest within its limitations. Ignoring those limitations is not too smart, as my body has shown me again and again. OK, so I will not wear jeans anymore! I wear skirts and stretchy pants and look pretty good! I am not a sexual athlete, but I still have a love life. Life is still good.
    I see people around me with all kinds of physical and other challenges. We are never alone in having some challenges. One extra thought- Exercise helps me a lot in creating endorphins and in just feeling good within my body. Good luck everyone-

    Reply
    • Lorraine

      Hi! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Warmly, Lorraine

      Reply
  4. Cassidy

    Hi my name is Cassidy I’m 21 years-old I have had UTI’S before and last month I had a very serious bladder infection with a horrible rash around my anus. I got antibiotics for my bladder infection that went away and also got swabs done as well. 4 days later the doc called me and said I had a bacteria called giradia so I took metronidazole to get rid of it and after seven days of it I felt like it was not working, so I asked for the gel version of the same medicine and only used it for 2 days. On the second day of using it I went to see my family doctor and she prescribed me climdamycin 2 percent for seven days. I started using it and felt better for three days then my period started and it went back to the burning and irritation I had. I finished the medicine then went to the gyno she said I over medicated myself and I should just let my period end and use no more medicine. I have done that for about two weeks and recently saw another doctor about it who took a sample of me and looked at it through a microscope and said I had no infection and my cells looked very healthy and said it takes awhile for your vagina to feel normal again so she told me to wait it out. She also said that if it doesn’t go away it could be vulvadynia. I looked it up and it sounds exactly like me: burning, irritation, burns when I pee and I feel like I have to pee all the time I also got the same rash around my anus and has been hurting after bowl movements. I have had such bad anxiety with this everyone tells me it will go away and it just takes a while to feel better but I know something is wrong. I am now on escitalopram 10mg and have been taking probiotics and cranberry pills. There are days I feel ok but days where it’s very irritating I have not been diagnosed with anything but I feel like I have vulvadynia and I cry every day I miss going out, having fun, having sex with my boyfriend I’m scared he will end up cheating or something because I feel like this is never going to go away. I know i think about it to much but if I have this and it dosent go away I don’t know how I will live my life please help me.

    Reply
    • Lorraine

      Hi Cassidy,

      Thank you for sharing your story. Your experience, both with the onset of your symptoms, and the emotions and anxiety you are having around them are very similar both to what I hear from other women, and what I experienced myself. What I can tell you is that there is hope that you can relieve the pain, and there is a very good chance that there are some mental and emotional patterns at the root of your symptoms. As a first step I would recommend signing up for my newsletter to receive future articles on this topic as well as announcements of my upcoming group programs (I will be running one again in the fall of 2014) as well as reading more articles on my blog now. I think you might find this post helpful https://radiantlifedesign.com/2012/11/how-to-think-more-positively/ . Then, if that’s resonating with you and you think your pain may be mind body in nature, I do offer private coaching programs as well, and you can read about that here: https://radiantlifedesign.com/services/ I’m sorry that you’re suffering. I know it can be very scary. But, I do think you’re in the right place and that you’ll find lots of resources here to help you get on track and learn how to heal your body. Thanks again for writing.

      Warmest Wishes, Lorraine

      Reply
  5. Katie

    Hi there. I dont know if this page is still going. I feel my vvd might have a mind body connection. I did however get it after ten rounds of antibiotics and alot of home remedies also. I have had anxiety for years. For me the symptoms got significantly worse after I read up on what I was told I had. My doc said the area is traumatised and needs to be left alone for the nerves to calm down. Everything I read said ppl have this forever and so I lost my mind and got deeply depressed and terrified. I have started on amitriptyline and been told itl take a while to work. I just wonder if the symptoms went from bearable to unbearable because of my mind state getting bad after reading up on it. Ive started back therapy. Any advice u can offer would be greatly appreciated. Do u think ppl have this indefinitely because of a mind state about it ?

    Reply
    • Lorraine

      Hi Katie,

      Thanks for your questions. Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience if there is a mind body component of your symptoms and you’re not addressing them, it makes it nearly impossible to relieve vulvodynia. Your thoughts and they way you process emotions physically impacts your body – in particular your nervous system..which impacts the nerves, pain pathways, hormone and neurotransmitter balance, the level of tension in your muscles, and even the balance of flora in your vagina. ALL of which have a significant impact on how possible or likely it is you will relieve pain. So yes, both the anxiety you had before and the anxiety that came after reading those scary stories about vvd are perpetuating your symptoms. The pelvis, including your vulva, are more significantly impacted by this because of the autonomic component of the pelvic nerves. To calm down your nervous system and relieve the pain it is critical to learn how to not only work with your thoughts, but allow your emotions, and heal your relationship with your body (that I know has been impacted by your experience with pelvic pain). The good news is that this is VERY doable! The women in my programs have huge success with changing their thinking, calming their nervous system, and relieving vulvodynia. Have you read my e-book? If not, I would recommend that as a great next step because it goes more in depth into all of the mind body factors that contribute to pelvic pain and how to begin addressing them. You can sign up for that here: https://radiantlifedesign.com/7-reasons/. Don’t lose hope Katie! What you are describing is very common, and in my experience completely reversible!!! Warmly, Lorraine

      Reply

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