Doctors still don't know what causes it or how to treat it.
The other day, I was talking to a med student who argued that our generation has no excuse for catching an STI or any non-sexual infection because we live in the age of information. At first, it made sense: we do have a lot of access to information regarding our health, but then again, not everyone has that access, and also, there are still gaps regarding many health conditions that some doctors aren't even aware of. I asked my gynecologist about it, and he couldn’t agree more. His office is in a hospital annexed to a convent, so he sees all the nuns who live there. And he told me that he had once treated all of them for severe cases of vaginal rash caused by a new brand of pads they had bought to save money.
In that case, the solution was simple: buy different pads, but some months later, one of the nuns came back with terrible pains she developed more or less at the time of the pad incident. Believing that it was related to that, he continued treating her for the rash, but a week went by, and nothing had changed. After running some tests on her and not getting a clear answer, he decided to take the case to one of his colleagues, who after a quick analysis determined it was Vulvodynia. My doctor said he knew what he meant because he had some knowledge of etymology, but this wasn’t something he had studied in med school. So, is all we need to know regarding our sexual health really out there? Not really, and Vulvodynia is one of those conditions that are very common, but almost no one talks about, and is often misdiagnosed.
Vulvodynia basically translates to pain in the vulva, but it isn’t that simple. It’s a chronic burning and aching sensation in the vulva (the external genital organs that include the labia) and can go deeper, affecting the clitoris and vaginal opening. Not that long ago, it wasn’t even listed as a real chronic condition, since it was believed it was just a symptom of another condition, and even though there have been some research efforts to learn more about this disease, there's not that much information yet, and most of the women who have it, don’t even know what they have, and worst of all, they are receiving the wrong treatment.
Researching more about the subject, I found an article by Sofia Capel, editor-in-chief at The Stockholm Review, in which she talks about her struggle with Vulvodynia. What’s shocking is that she saw several doctors looking for answers, and they either assured her it was a psychosomatic symptom, or just gave her creams to help with the burning sensation. It wasn’t until she read that most of these creams’ side effects included Vulvodynia that she realized that's what she had, and saw another doctor who confirmed it. The problem here is that, like Capel, there are millions of people who don’t really know what’s going on in their body, and are either ignored by their doctor, or too embarrassed to talk about it.
Both the cause and cure for this condition are unknown. What we do know is that the vulva has some of the most sensitive nerves in the human body, and sometimes, for no reason, they are triggered automatically and send pain signals to the brain. One of the explanations Capel got from the last doctor she saw was that, unlike other parts of the body, the nerves of the vulva have a long memory and the ability to store pain. So, for instance, when you hurt one of your limbs, you bruise and as time goes by, the bruises settle, and then they disappear. However, in the case of the vulva, when there’s an injury, these nerve endings store the pain and "recycle" it later. This could explain why women develop the chronic disease at random moments in their lives, or also as the consequence of an accident.
Other potential causes for Vulvodynia include: genetic factors, hypersensitivity to yeast infections, allergies to substances or chemicals, muscle spasms, nerve irritation, hormonal changes, all in a long list that doesn't really give us any concrete answers. The same happens with treatment. The most common treatment for Vulvodynia is drugs that alter the functioning of the nerve fibers in the area, and this can be tackled through tricyclic anti-depressants that work as serotonin inhibitors, (serotonin being in charge of transmitting signals through the neurons). This is the reason why Vulvodynia is often referred to as "depressed vagina," a term that only adds to the misinformation surrounding it.
To sum things up, the issue here is that Vulvodynia doesn’t only affect people at the physical level, but also at the emotional level, and can have a significant impact in their daily life. It's a serious disease that can keep women from doing everyday activities like exercising, going to work, or having sex. As Capel claims in her article, this is still an unknown disease that doesn’t get the proper research because, from the estimated 6 million women who have it, only a small percentage talks about it.
We recommend these articles:
Cover: God & Man
Images by @danielhan