Dyspareunia is persistent or recurrent pain before, during, or after sexual contact and is not limited to cisgender individuals or vaginal intercourse.1-3 With a prevalence as high as 45% in the United States,2-5 it is one of the most common complaints in gynecologic practices.5,6
Causes and contributing factors
There are many possible causes of dyspareunia.2,4,6 While some patients have a single cause, most cases are complex, with multiple overlapping causes and maintaining factors.4,6 Identifying each contributing factor can help you appropriately address all components.
Physical conditions. The range of physical contributors to dyspareunia includes inflammatory processes, structural abnormalities, musculoskeletal dysfunctions, pelvic organ disorders, injuries, iatrogenic effects, infections, allergic reactions, sensitization, hormonal changes, medication effects, adhesions, autoimmune disorders, and other pain syndromes (TABLE 12-4,6-11).
Inadequate arousal. One of the primary causes of pain during vaginal penetration is inadequate arousal and lubrication.1,2,9-11 Arousal is the phase of the sexual response cycle that leads to genital tumescence and prepares the genitals for sexual contact through penile/clitoral erection, vaginal engorgement, and lubrication, which prevents pain and enhances pleasurable sensation.9-11
While some physical conditions can lead to an inability to lubricate, the most common causes of inadequate lubrication are psychosocial-behavioral, wherein patients have the same physical ability to lubricate as patients without genital pain but do not progress through the arousal phase.9-11 Behavioral factors such as inadequate or ineffective foreplay can fail to produce engorgement and lubrication, while psychosocial factors such as low attraction to partner, relationship stressors, anxiety, or low self-esteem can have an inhibitory effect on sexual arousal.1,2,9-11 Psychosocial and behavioral factors may also be maintaining factors or consequences of dyspareunia, and need to be assessed and treated.1,2,9-11
Psychological trauma. Exposure to psychological traumas and the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been linked with the development of pain disorders in general and dyspareunia specifically. Most patients seeking treatment for chronic pain disorders have a history of physical or sexual abuse.12 Changes in physiologic processes (eg, neurochemical, endocrine) that occur with PTSD interfere with the sexual response cycle, and sexual traumas specifically have been linked with pelvic floor dysfunction.13,14 Additionally, when PTSD is caused by a sexual trauma, even consensual sexual encounters can trigger flashbacks, intrusive memories, hyperarousal, and muscle tension that interfere with the sexual response cycle and contribute to genital pain.13
Vaginismus is both a physiologic and psychological contributor to dyspareunia.1,2,4 Patients experiencing pain can develop anxiety about repeated pain and involuntarily contract their pelvic muscles, thereby creating more pain, increasing anxiety, decreasing lubrication, and causing pelvic floor dysfunction.1-4,6 Consequently, all patients with dyspareunia should be assessed and continually monitored for symptoms of vaginismus.
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