Painful Sex May Be A Sign Of A Serious Condition
Sometimes, love is painful. But sex shouldn’t be.
I’d say that sex is never supposed to hurt, but that’s not necessarily true — especially if your sex life involves some real-life BDSM practices.
But when it comes to actual dyspareunia (that’s the term for pain during intercourse), there’s no fifty shades about it: if you’re experiencing painful sex, it could be caused by a serious condition. That’s not meant to freak you out, it’s more to motivate you to see your OB-GYN or health-care provider to find out what’s going on. Sadly, research shows that less than half of women who experience sexual pain seek help. Are they embarrassed, or afraid that it’s “all in their head”? Or maybe they’re worried about discovering a serious condition?
To start with, there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re experiencing pain during intercourse (it’s actually very common). And whatever the underlying cause, it’s a valid issue that deserves attention. And finally, if — with the emphasis on the if — your pain is caused by a serious condition, then it needs to be treated (sometimes quite simply). Just like how your period blood can send up a red (!) flag, or vaginal symptoms can be a sign of something wrong, pain during sex is your body’s way of letting you know that an issue — whether it’s emotional or physiological or a combination of both — needs to be addressed.
When you talk to your provider, be sure to mention if you’re experiencing other symptoms along with painful sex (for example, do you have to pee more frequently than usual? Have your menstrual periods changed at all? Are you feeling depressed?). Here are three potential causes behind pain during intercourse.
Endometriosis is a painful and potentially serious health condition in which tissue normally found within the uterus grows outside of it, instead. It affects 176 million women around the world. However, “this is a condition that is oft times overlooked,” warns Dr. Angela Jones, Astroglide’s resident sexual health advisor.
“The presenting symptom just might be painful intercourse though there are typically other symptoms as well, [such as] cyclically painful periods, bowel/bladder issues, etc.”
There are a lot of options for treating endometriosis, including hormonal therapies like the birth control pill. So talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms to see if you should be tested (testing can include a pelvic examination, ultrasound, and/or a laparoscopy, a procedure in which a camera is inserted into an incision beneath the belly button).
2. Vaginal Dryness
Vaginal dryness isn’t anything to be embarrassed about, and in some cases goes way beyond whether or not you’re feeling aroused during sex. But whatever the reason, it can be very painful and, needless to say, a total buzzkill. Moreover, being worried about vaginal dryness can add to and even exacerbate the discomfort.
One potential cause? Menopause.
“Vaginal atrophy [is] is a fancy term for vaginal dryness that is a direct result of changes the vagina undergoes secondary to a woman being in menopause,” Jones explains.
“The architecture of the vagina completely changes and the vagina becomes less elastic, accommodating, lubricated, supple, etc. This translates into dry, painful sex.” Vaginal atrophy can be addressed, says Jones, who advises a visit to your OB-GYN.
The term “infection” covers a wide range of potential issues (I’ll get to those in a moment). But if you are suffering from an infection, it can cause pain during intercourse.
“If you were a vagina and a bit under the weather would you want to have sex?” asks Jones. (I vote for NO.) She adds that “painful sex could be a sign of any sort of infection.”
This could include one of many (and mostly treatable) STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, or a basic, good ol’ yeast infection (also very treatable). Sure, preventative measures can be key (using protection during sex against STDs, for example). In other cases, such as with yeast infections, there’s only so much you can do (sometimes they just happen!).
Take note of other symptoms you’re experiencing other than painful sex. Do you have discharge and if so, what’s it like? How are your periods going? Have you experienced this before? Then ring up your provider so that the problem can be identified and treated.
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Luisa is SHESAID's beauty writer and a New Yorker who has been writing and editing professionally since 1997, when she started working at New York magazine. Since then, her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, New York, USA Today, Family Circle, Glamour, and many more. Follow Luisa on Twitter.