Vaginisimus: the little-known condition making sex painful

Sex can be an agonising ordeal for those suffering from vaginisimus [Photo: Getty]

Words by Francesca Specter. 

Not every sexual experience goes to plan, but for those suffering from vaginisimus, sex can be an agonising ordeal.

Yet there is little awareness about this condition, which is said to affect two in 1000 women in the UK, although it is possible the number could be higher due to unreported cases.

“Vaginismus is an involuntary tightening of the pubococcygeus (or PC) muscle at the entrance of the vagina,” explains gynaecologist Dr Anne Henderson.

Vaginal muscles are surprisingly strong. If they’re contracting involuntarily, it’s very, very rigid. Try to push anything in and the pain could be an 8/9 out of 10.

“It’s not pain that will go away if you leave it a minute. It’s not pain where you can add a bit of lubricant and it’s going to be fine. You can’t force yourself to relax because the muscles aren’t under voluntary control.”

So what causes vaginisimus? The root of the issue is said to be psychological – and can be down to anything from internalised religious beliefs to a previous traumatic experience.

Henderson says: “Psychologically, a bad event, such as a misplaced tampon or painful intercourse, can trigger vaginismus (for example, after a painful sexual experience you start associating vaginal penetration with pain).

“Physical or emotional abuse can trigger psychological consequences, but sometimes it’s less obvious. One patient’s vaginismus stemmed from growing up in a very religious family, where it was drummed in to her to not have sex before marriage.

“This formed her standards on relationships and she was unable to step out of that belief.”

The problem isn’t limited to the first time you have sex; in fact, it can occur at any time.

“Interestingly, it doesn’t just apply to the first time you have sex: I’ve seen women who’ve never had any problems, then they get a new partner, something minor goes wrong and it triggers a downward spiral,” Henderson explains.

So what can be done for those suffering from vaginisimus? Henderson advises seeking help from an expert in the field, such as your GP, an experienced nurse or a family planning clinic. You could also speak to a gynaecologist who specialises in psychosexual medicine.

Cures include medication, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or couple’s counselling. Vagina trainers are also common – penis shaped objects inserted into the vagina to help the muscles get used to penetration.

The chance of overcoming the problem is between 50% and 70%, Henderson says. “I would never say ‘we’ll cure you’, it’s not that sort of a condition. But you can manage the condition to live with it more happily.”

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