For 1 in 10 women, sex hurts — every time.
A new study, which surveyed nearly 7,000 British women ages 16 to 74, found that women in their late 50s and early 60s were most likely to experience pain during sex, followed by women ages 16 to 24. The study was published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Researchers say the results suggest the medical condition, known as dyspareunia, is common among women of all ages.
“While dyspareunia is a common problem, sexual pain disorders are often overlooked because underlying conditions are often difficult to diagnose and treat, and causes can be complex and poorly understood,” says Dr. Kirstin Mitchell, the study’s lead author.
The study also found that among the 1,708 women who surveyed as not sexual active, over two per cent said they avoided sex altogether because they found the act painful or were afraid of feeling pain.
Often times, researchers say, painful sex was strongly linked to other sexual function issues, most notably vaginal dryness, anxiety and lack of enjoyment.
Intercourse pain was also linked to other physical and mental health issues like depression, sexual relationship factors (like not sharing the same level of interest in sex) and harmful experiences like STIs and non-volitional sex.
“This study raises the need for increased awareness that sex is more likely to be painful at the extremes of reproductive life, i.e. in young women and those who have gone through menopause,” says Edward Morris, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “It also reveals an association between painful sex and women wanting to have known more at first sexual experience. Given that painful sex is common in younger women, and that half of young women report their first experience of intercourse as painful, it would be beneficial to ensure that the possibility of pain is discussed openly in sex education and in consultations between young people and health professional.”
The Canadian perspective
While Canadian statistics on women who experience dyspareunia are scarce, obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr. Dustin Costescu of McMaster University says they’re closely aligned with what the British study concluded.
According to Costescu, the percentage of women in North America who experience dyspareunia are anywhere between 10 to 20 per cent.
It’s important to note, he says, that the majority of women will experience pain during intercourse at one point in their lives.
“In many cases there isn’t anything sinister that’s going on from a life-threatening medical issue,” says Costescu. “It usually has to do with something functional, or with time can be improved upon.”
Pain during sex can be due to issues like vaginal dryness or tensing of the muscles during the act — common issues that often have a solution that’ll fix the problem.
However, what isn’t common for women is if they have persistent painful intercourse for six months or more.
A big problem, Costescu says, is that many women find the issue embarrassing to talk about and won’t discuss it with their doctor. This not only doesn’t fix the problem for the patient, but it also could mean more women are suffering from dyspareunia than originally thought.
“A lot of it comes down to our own comforts and discomforts about educating people about what is normal during sex,” Costescu says. “People don’t always feel comfortable bringing this up. With my experience I see a lot of women dealing with shame and always wondering what is wrong with them and they often don’t relate it to being a part of some other problem, like attraction to their partner or problem with lubrication.”
Sometimes the issue may have to do with an underlying condition or chronic illness, like endometriosis or ovarian cysts for example — or even menopause.
“For many patients who have chronic pain problems or bladder issues the experience is painful not because they’re having the intercourse but things that are already painful are being made worse,” says Costescu. “[The pain] can also be the result of changes due to menopause. This often can be improved upon with the use of lubricants or estrogen-containing products, if they’re comfortable using them.”
Painful sexual intercourse may also be tied to sensitivity after giving childbirth. According to University of British Columbia nursing professor Wendy Hall, having sex too soon can be painful for women and increase her risk of infection.
What to do
Costescu says he often deals with two groups of women: the first are those who will try whatever they can think of before seeking medical help, the other being women who will forego sex altogether to avoid the pain.
“One thing I encourage women to do if they’re experiencing painful intercourse is to find a way to maintain a healthy sexual life with their partners until we sort out what is going on and then offer treatment solutions,” he says.
Should there be pain (short-term or otherwise), Costescu recommends trying different brands of condoms and soaps as they may be part of the problem.
Costescu understands that it’s difficult for some women to know when to seek out the help of a physician so he recommends that women should keep an eye out for a few things. If there is irritation to the vaginal area, itching, discharge or other symptoms of an infection on top of the painful intercourse, then women should see their physician.
If there’s one last bit of advice Costescu would give to women it’s to not go through this alone.
“Talk to your partner and find ways to be intimate while you’re dealing with what’s going on,” he says. “Your partner would want to know that information and it’s really important for them to know.”