If you’ve ever felt pain during intercourse, you’re not alone. Doctors call painful sex ‘dyspareunia’ and often divide it into two categories: deep pain felt in the pelvis, and superficial pain in the vulva area. And dyspareunia, it turns out, is pretty common.
But how common, exactly? And what causes it? In an attempt to get to the bottom of these questions, British researchers went about collecting information from over 6500 women across the country. The researchers asked the women if they felt pain as a result of sex for three or more months during the past year and if so, how bad it was. The women were also asked other questions about issues they might have around sex, like feeling anxious or difficulty getting aroused.
Bring painful sex out in the open
Seven and a half per cent of British women experience pain during sex, the researchers learned. For just under two per cent, painful sex is a serious problem: it lasts for months on end, happens often or all the time she has intercourse, and causes her distress.
Feeling pain during sex is more common among younger women aged 16 to 24, as well as in older women between the ages of 55 and 64, the study also found. Women with dyspareunia were more likely to wish they’d known more about sex when they lost their virginity, the researchers found. It’s important for sex ed teachers and health professionals to talk openly about the possibility of sex being painful, they say.
Sexually out of sync
Painful intercourse seems to happen alongside other problems related to a woman’s sexual relationship with her partner, the study showed. Perhaps not surprisingly, women who feel anxious or distressed at the very thought of things heating up with their man, and simply don’t enjoy sex, are more likely to report pain. So are those who say vaginal dryness is an issue for them.
Feeling sexually out of synch with a partner, say in terms of how often to have sex, or liking different things in bed, as well as not being able to talk about these concerns, are linked to pain during intercourse.
Certain health problems not related to a woman’s sex life, at least not in an obvious way, also seem to factor in to the experience of pain during sex. For example, having more than one chronic medical condition or certain mental health problems, like depression, were associated with dyspareunia in the study.
Lots of foreplay
Importantly, the researchers can’t say for sure what causes painful sex. Though they know it’s often linked to other health concerns and sexual problems in a relationship, it’s not yet possible to tease apart what causes what.
Because it’s still a bit of a mystery and there can be many possible causes of painful sex, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. But a great place to start is foreplay, and plenty of it! When a woman gets aroused, her pelvic floor muscles relax and vagina gets well lubricated. And for women, that’s the first ingredient for pain-free, pleasurable sex. So long, slow, sensual foreplay is the first treatment to try.
Reference: Painful sex (dyspareunia) in women: prevalence and associated factors in a British population probability survey. BJOG. (2017) Published online Jan 20.