(See also Overview of Female Sexual Function and Dysfunction Overview of Female Sexual Function and Dysfunction Women commonly have concerns about sexual function ( 1). Concerns that cause personal or interpersonal distress are considered a sexual dysfunction disorder. Approximately 12% of women in the... read more .)
Women with genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder commonly have impaired arousal, orgasm, or both.
Etiology of Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder
Causes of genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder may involve physical and psychological factors Etiology Women commonly have concerns about sexual function ( 1). Concerns that cause personal or interpersonal distress are considered a sexual dysfunction disorder. Approximately 12% of women in the... read more .
Superficial vulvar pain may result from provoked vestibulodynia, genitourinary syndrome of menopause, dermatologic disorders (eg, lichen sclerosus Lichen Sclerosus Lichen sclerosus is an inflammatory dermatosis of unknown cause, possibly autoimmune, that usually affects the anogenital area. Diagnosis is usually clinical and supported by skin biopsy. Treatment... read more , vulvar dystrophies), congenital malformations, genital herpes simplex Genital Herpes Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by human herpesvirus 1 or 2. It causes ulcerative genital lesions. Diagnosis is clinical with laboratory confirmation by culture, polymerase... read more , vaginitis, Bartholin gland abscess, radiation fibrosis, postsurgical introital narrowing, or recurrent tearing of the posterior fourchette.
Provoked vestibulodynia can be primary or secondary:
Primary: Is present from the first experience with penetration (whether by insertion of a tampon, a speculum examination, or sexual intercourse)
Secondary: Develops in patients who have previously been able to have comfortable, pain-free penetration
The etiology of provoked vestibulodynia is not entirely understood and may result from multiple factors, possibly including an inflammatory or immune response, an increased number of nerve fibers resulting in hyperesthesia, a hormonal imbalance, and pelvic floor dysfunction. Provoked vestibulodynia can occur in chronic pain syndromes, including fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia is a common, incompletely understood nonarticular, noninflammatory disorder characterized by generalized aching (sometimes severe); widespread tenderness of muscles, areas around... read more , interstitial cystitis Interstitial Cystitis Interstitial cystitis is noninfectious bladder inflammation that causes pain (suprapubic, pelvic, and abdominal), urinary frequency, and urgency with incontinence. Diagnosis is by history and... read more , and irritable bowel syndrome Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Irritable bowel syndrome is characterized by recurrent abdominal discomfort or pain with at least two of the following characteristics: relation to defecation, association with a change in frequency... read more .
Deep dyspareunia may result from pelvic floor muscle hypertonicity or uterine or ovarian disorders (eg, fibroids Uterine Fibroids Uterine fibroids (leiomyomas) are benign smooth muscle tumors of the uterus. Fibroids frequently cause abnormal uterine bleeding and pelvic pressure and sometimes urinary or intestinal symptoms... read more , chronic pelvic inflammatory disease Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is a polymicrobial infection of the upper female genital tract: the cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries; abscess may occur. PID may be caused by sexually... read more , endometriosis Endometriosis In endometriosis, functioning endometrial cells are implanted in the pelvis outside the uterine cavity. Symptoms depend on location of the implants. The classic triad of symptoms is dysmenorrhea... read more ).
A history of trauma or sexual trauma can also contribute to a genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder.
The term levator ani syndrome is being increasingly used to replace vaginismus because symptoms of vaginismus typically result from levator ani muscle dysfunction. Levator ani syndrome may combine pain and emotional components. This disorder may be primary, occurring with the first attempt at sexual intercourse or secondary, occurring after a period of pain-free sex.
Symptoms and Signs of Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder
Women with primary provoked vestibulodynia report that pain occurred during their first experience with penetration. Many notice the pain first in adolescence, when they first try to use a tampon. They may report that they have never been able to have had comfortable sexual intercourse. Often, pain is described as a burning or stabbing pain caused by insertion of something into the vagina. Women with secondary provoked vestibulodynia have similar symptoms, but they report symptoms after a period of sexual activity without pain.
Women with genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder may develop a phobia-like avoidance of penetration. They may have an intense fear of and anxiety about pain before or during vaginal penetration. When women anticipate that pain will recur during penetration, their vaginal muscles tighten, making attempts at sexual intercourse even more painful. However, most women with this disorder can enjoy nonpenetrative sexual activity.
The inability to have sexual intercourse can strain a relationship. Women may feel ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, or depressed. It causes significant stress for women who want to become pregnant.
Diagnosis of Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) criteria (1 Diagnosis reference Genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder involves difficulties with attempted or completed vaginal penetration during sexual intercourse, including involuntary contraction of the pelvic floor... read more )
Diagnosis of genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder is based on symptoms and results of a pelvic examination, which can detect or rule out physical abnormalities.
The examination focuses on inspecting all the vulvar skin (including the creases between the labia minora and majora [eg, for fissures typical of chronic candidiasis]), as well as the clitoral hood, urethral meatus, hymen, and openings of major vestibular gland ducts (for atrophy, signs of inflammation, and abnormal skin lesions requiring biopsy).
A moist cotton swab can then be used to map out the woman's pain. Provoked vestibulodynia manifests with pain that is reproduced when the vestibule is palpated. The pain may occur along the entire vestibule (from 1 to 11 o'clock) or sometimes only posteriorly (from 4 to 8 o'clock). If only the posterior part of the vestibule is affected, pelvic floor dysfunction may also be present.
A digital examination is then done to check for pelvic floor hypertonicity, which can be elicited by palpating the levator ani muscles. The urethra and bladder should also be palpated anteriorly to identify abnormal tenderness. A speculum examination can be done to evaluate the cervix, and bimanual examination to palpate the uterus and ovaries can help identify causes of deeper pain.
Examination can sometimes be difficult because of the patient's pain and/or anticipation of pain. In many women with levator ani syndrome, the speculum and bimanual part of the examination cannot be done. Clinicians should explain each step of the examination to women to help them relax and to get as much information as possible from the examination.
Diagnosis of genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder is based on specific criteria in the DSM-5-TR. The criteria require persistence or recurrence of one or more of the following:
Marked vulvovaginal or pelvic pain during intercourse or penetration attempts
Marked fear or anxiety about vulvovaginal or pelvic pain in anticipation of, during, or because of vaginal penetration
Marked tensing or tightening of pelvic floor muscles during attempted vaginal penetration
Symptoms must have been present for ≥ 6 months and must cause significant distress in the woman. Also, the diagnosis of genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder requires that sexual dysfunction is not better explained by the presence of another disorder, severe relationship distress (eg, intimate violence), or other significant stressors or by use a substance or medication.
1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Text Revision (DSM-5-TR). Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022.
Treatment of Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder
Treatment of cause when possible (eg, topical estrogen for genitourinary syndrome of menopause)
Education about chronic pain and its effects on sexuality
Pelvic floor physical therapy
Management of genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder frequently includes the following:
Encouraging and teaching the couple to develop satisfying forms of nonpenetrative sex
Discussing psychological issues contributing to and caused by the chronic pain
When possible, treating the primarily physical abnormality that contributes to pain (eg, endometriosis Treatment In endometriosis, functioning endometrial cells are implanted in the pelvis outside the uterine cavity. Symptoms depend on location of the implants. The classic triad of symptoms is dysmenorrhea... read more , lichen sclerosus Treatment Lichen sclerosus is an inflammatory dermatosis of unknown cause, possibly autoimmune, that usually affects the anogenital area. Diagnosis is usually clinical and supported by skin biopsy. Treatment... read more , vulvar dystrophies, vaginal infections Treatment Vaginitis is infectious or noninfectious inflammation of the vaginal mucosa, sometimes with inflammation of the vulva. Symptoms include vaginal discharge, irritation, pruritus, and erythema... read more , congenital malformations, radiation fibrosis)
Treating coexisting pelvic muscle hypertonicity
Treating comorbid sexual interest/arousal disorder
Topical estrogen Menopausal Hormone Therapy Menopause is the permanent cessation of menses (amenorrhea) due to loss of ovarian follicular function. Clinical manifestations may include hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disruption, and genitourinary... read more is helpful for genitourinary syndrome of menopause, atrophic vaginitis, and recurrent posterior fourchette tearing. Topical estrogen, intravaginal prasterone (a preparation of dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA), or ospemifene (a selective estrogen receptor modulator [SERM]) may be useful in women with dyspareunia due to vulvar dystrophies, or genitourinary syndrome of menopause.
Data about the optimal treatment of genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder are limited, and many approaches are currently used depending on the specific presentation.
The first approach is always a reminder to practice good vulvar hygiene, including wearing cotton underwear during the day, washing with a mild soap, and avoiding douching and over-the-counter vaginal deodorants. If a lubricant is used during sex, it should be nonscented and water-based.
Pelvic floor physical therapy can often benefit women with genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder; it includes pelvic floor muscle training, sometimes with biofeedback, to teach pelvic muscle relaxation. Other therapies include soft-tissue mobilization and myofascial release, trigger-point pressure, electrical stimulation, bladder and bowel retraining, and therapeutic ultrasonography.
Prescription and nonprescription devices are available for self-dilation if women with genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder have tight pelvic muscles that contribute to painful intercourse. Self-dilation in the presence of a therapist and the woman's partner plus psychotherapy has been shown to enable women with levator ani syndrome to have sexual intercourse more frequently (1 Treatment references Genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder involves difficulties with attempted or completed vaginal penetration during sexual intercourse, including involuntary contraction of the pelvic floor... read more ).
Levator ani syndrome (previously called vaginismus) can be treated with progressive desensitization; women progressively accustom themselves to self-touch near, on, then through the introitus. Each stage in the progression begins only when the woman is comfortable with the previous stage.
The woman touches herself daily as close to the introitus as possible, separating the labia with her fingers. (Once her fear and anxiety due to introital self-touch has diminished, the woman will be more able to tolerate the physical examination.)
The woman inserts her finger past her hymen; pushing or bearing down during insertion enlarges the opening and eases entry.
The woman inserts vaginal cones in gradually increasing sizes progressively; leaving a cone inside for 10 to 15 minutes helps perivaginal muscles become accustomed to gently increasing pressure without reflex contraction.
The woman then allows her partner to help her insert a cone during a sexual encounter to confirm that it can go in comfortably when she is sexually excited.
The couple includes penile vulvar stimulation during sexual play so that the woman becomes accustomed to feeling the penis on her vulva.
Ultimately, the woman inserts her partner’s penis partially or fully, holding it like an insert. She may feel more confident in the woman superior position.
For provoked vestibulodynia, first-line treatment includes pelvic floor physical therapy because pelvic floor muscle hypertonicity is often present.
A topical hormone cream can often help when used for several months. For example, in one study of women who were taking estrogen-progestin contraceptives (a potential cause of vulvar pain) and who had pain of the vulvar vestibule (vestibulodynia), treatment with topical combined estradiol and testosterone therapy was effective (2 Treatment references Genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder involves difficulties with attempted or completed vaginal penetration during sexual intercourse, including involuntary contraction of the pelvic floor... read more ). Topical estrogen Menopausal Hormone Therapy Menopause is the permanent cessation of menses (amenorrhea) due to loss of ovarian follicular function. Clinical manifestations may include hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disruption, and genitourinary... read more is helpful for genitourinary syndrome of menopause and to prevent tissue fragility, which may result in recurrent posterior fourchette lacerations.
A topical lidocaine gel can also be applied before activities that cause discomfort during sexual intercourse; this gel should be used only for a short time.
Topical estrogen, intravaginal prasterone (a DHEA preparation), or ospemifene (a selective estrogen receptor modulator [SERM]) may be useful in women with dyspareunia due to genitourinary syndrome of menopause Menopause Menopause is the permanent cessation of menses (amenorrhea) due to loss of ovarian follicular function. Clinical manifestations may include hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disruption, and genitourinary... read more .
Medications used to treat neuropathic pain Treatment Neuropathic pain results from damage to or dysfunction of the peripheral or central nervous system, rather than stimulation of pain receptors. Diagnosis is suggested by pain out of proportion... read more (eg, gabapentin, pregabalin) can be useful for provoked vestibulodynia. These medications can lessen pain when they are used with other treatments for provoked vestibulodynia.
Tricyclic antidepressants, often used to treat chronic pain disorders, are a 2nd-line treatment for provoked vestibulodynia. Amitriptyline and nortriptyline are the tricyclic antidepressants most commonly used and should be started at a low dose and titrated up.
Various topical compounds containing combinations of gabapentin and amitriptyline may also be effective and, when applied directly to the vaginal vestibule, have fewer systemic adverse effects.
Botulinum toxin type A, injected into the pelvic floor muscles, has been used to treat levator ani syndrome and provoked vestibulodynia, but it is normally used only for short-term treatment of refractory cases.
Vestibulectomy (removal of the vaginal vestibule) is not done often but can be considered on a case by case basis. Women with primary provoked vestibulodynia are usually the best candidates for this surgical procedure.
Referral to a certified sex therapist for psychological therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can often help women manage their fear of and anxiety about pain and penetration.
1. Ter Kuile MM, Melles R, de Groot HE, et al: Therapist-aided exposure for women with lifelong vaginismus: A randomized waiting-list control trial of efficacy. J Consult Clin Psychol 81 (6):1127–1136. 2013. doi: 10.1037/a0034292
2. Burrows LJ, Goldstein AT. The treatment of vestibulodynia with topical estradiol and testosterone. Sex Med 1(1):30-33, 2013. doi:10.1002/sm2.4
Genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder is characterized by involuntary contraction of pelvic floor muscles, pain that occurs during vaginal entry and/or deep penetration, anxiety about penetration, and difficulty having sexual intercourse.
Carefully examine the vulva and do a pelvic examination to localize the woman's pain and determine any underlying condition.
Treat the cause if possible, and use various medication and/or psychological therapies to help women manage their fears and anxieties.
Recommend pelvic floor physical therapy because it is useful for almost all women who have genito-pelvic pain disorder.
Drugs Mentioned In This Article
|Drug Name||Select Trade|
|Alora, Climara, Delestrogen, Depgynogen, Depo-Estradiol, Depogen, Divigel, DOTTI, Elestrin, Esclim, Estrace, Estraderm, Estrasorb, Estring, EstroGel, Evamist, FemPatch, Femring, Femtrace, Gynodiol , Gynogen LA, Imvexxy, LYLLANA, Menostar, Minivelle, Vagifem, Valergen, Vivelle, Vivelle-Dot, Yuvafem|
|Androderm, AndroGel, Andro-L.A., Aveed, AXIRON, Delatestryl, Depo-Testosterone, FORTESTA, JATENZO, KYZATREX, Natesto, STRIANT, Testim, Testoderm, Testopel, TLANDO, Virilon, Vogelxo, XYOSTED|
|7T Lido, Akten , ALOCANE, ANASTIA, AneCream, Anestacon, Aspercreme with Lidocaine, Astero , BenGay, Blue Tube, Blue-Emu, CidalEaze, DermacinRx Lidogel, DermacinRx Lidorex, DERMALID, Ela-Max, GEN7T, Glydo, Gold Bond, LidaMantle, Lidocan, Lidocare, Lidoderm, LidoDose, LidoDose Pediatric, Lidofore, LidoHeal-90, LIDO-K , Lidomar , Lidomark, LidoReal-30, LidoRx, Lidosense 4 , Lidosense 5, Lidosol, Lidosol-50, LIDO-SORB, Lidotral, Lidovix L, LIDOZION, Lidozo, LMX 4, LMX 4 with Tegaderm, LMX 5, LTA, Lydexa, Moxicaine, Numbonex, ReadySharp Lidocaine, RectaSmoothe, RectiCare, Salonpas Lidocaine, Senatec, Solarcaine, SUN BURNT PLUS, Tranzarel, Xyliderm, Xylocaine, Xylocaine Dental, Xylocaine in Dextrose, Xylocaine MPF, Xylocaine Topical, Xylocaine Topical Jelly, Xylocaine Topical Solution, Xylocaine Viscous, Zilactin-L, Zingo, Zionodi, ZTlido|
|Active-PAC with Gabapentin, Gabarone , Gralise, Horizant, Neurontin|
|Lyrica, Lyrica CR|
|Elavil, Tryptanol, Vanatrip|