Two years ago, I was sitting in the bathtub cheerfully shampooing my unruly mop of hair and engaging my morning ablutions. When the time came to wash my privates, a sudden, sharp, stinging sensation arose the second I touched soap to vulva. I actually cried out, causing my curious cat to peek over the tub rim at my submerged body. I rinsed the soap off quickly, but the burning sensation lingered.
And I remained both in pain — and dumbfounded — for the next 18 months.I had assumed that my little episode was some sort of infection or minor tissue tear that would resolve itself in a matter of days. But when weeks had passed and I couldn’t urinate or wipe without intense pain, I went to the doctor. And since I went to the doctor a lot over the months and years that followed, I’ll just give you a few highlights of the uselessness that ensued:
- A GP diagnosed me with bacterial vaginosis — a chronic condition I’d had for most of my adult life — and put me on antibiotics. They neither cured the bacterial vaginosis, nor lessened my pain.
- A gynecologist diagnosed me with a yeast infection and gave me an oral and a topical which stopped the pain. At least until my period came, at which point the pain was back full-force.
- The same gynecologist put me on Monistat about four times, unable to find anything but yeast.
- A new GP, on hearing that I had what appeared to be chronic yeast infections, suggested I eliminate sugar from my diet. I did for about two months and it totally worked … but sugar deprivation sucks ass, and eventually I started munching pastries again. And dealing with the pain again.
- A new gynecologist diagnosed me with vulvar vestibulitis. Gave me some printouts and numbing ointments and basically told me to suck it up.
What’s vulvar vestibulitis, you ask? Essentially, it’s when a set of glands in the lower part of your vulva become painfully swollen. Symptoms can include severe pain with any pressure or touch, burning, stinging, redness, irritation, and overall rawness of the vulva, most often the lower portion nearish to the perineum. It is chronic, there is no universally effective treatment, and once you get it, having sexual intercourse can become excruciating. Doesn’t that sound fun?
There are multiple types of vulvar vestibulitis, and diagnosis and treatment can be tricky. But with information from my doctors, an extremely kind and generous friend of a friend who also suffers, and some online resources I’ve been able to get my pain under control. Here’s what I did:
- I eliminated sugar from my diet. Yeah, it still sucks ass. But since it reduces the amount of glucose in my system, it reduces my chances of getting yeasty and that is key.
- I switched to cotton panties. I was a thong girl before all this went down, but it’s cotton bikinis all the way now. Allowing your privates to breathe is essential, and no pair of seamless nylon knickers is gonna do that.
- I abandoned all panty liners. Keeping your vag dry and cool helps. Keeping a moist, warm pad all up on it doesn’t.
- I started using Lidocaine ointment when things got bad. It’s a numbing cream, basically, so it doesn’t cure anything but it dulls the pain. Helpful for flare-ups and intercourse.
- I switched to a mild, fragrance-free soap. The fewer unnatural substances that touch my tender parts, the better.
There are countless other behavior modifications, tips, and tricks that can help ease this type of pain including eliminating tampons, ceasing hormonal birth control, and using a squirt bottle to rinse after urination. Since another factor in this complex mess is that your pelvic floor muscles may spasm — especially if you become tense during sex — doing physical therapy and manually massaging those muscles has shown benefits for some. If the pain is severe enough, some women eventually try surgery to remove the inflamed glands. Yeah.
Vulvar vestibulitis is a condition that affects untold thousands of women, mainly because some are too timid to come forward and many more go undiagnosed for years. No one knows what causes it, women of all ages and all stages of sexual maturity can contract it, and many gynecologists know so little about it that they can neither identify nor treat it. Nevertheless, if you have experienced any of the symptoms I’m describing — especially for more than a few weeks — please, please, please make an appointment to see your lady doctor. Come armed with info just in case, and insist on an investigation if you feel strongly that you might be suffering from vulvar vestibulitis. If you don’t like or trust your gyno, or feel like you might want to speak with a specialist, the National Vulvodynia Association has a list of doctors you can contact.
I don’t know how I came down with this invasive, painful, and life-altering condition, and I don’t know how long I’ll be battling it. But I do know that learning to keep it in check has kept me from becoming uncontrollably violent or incurably despondent. It’s also kept me for applying for a Reproductive System Transplant. The help I got from my doctors was minimal, but the help I got from my peers was vital. Hopefully sharing my story and some VV-related resources will pay some of that goodwill forward, and convince a few of you who have been suffering to stand up and ask for help.
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based blogger, freelance writer, and communications professional who writes the daily style and body image blog Already Pretty.