Vaginismus (the German equivalent of the word Vaginism) is a condition which affects a woman's ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual penetration, insertion of tampons, and the penetration involved in gynecological examinations. This is the result of a conditioned reflex of the pubococcygeus muscle, which is sometimes referred to as the 'PC muscle'. The reflex causes the muscles in the vagina to tense suddenly, which makes any kind of vaginal penetration -- including sexual penetration -- either painful or impossible.
A vaginismic woman does not consciously control the spasm. The vaginismic reflex can be compared to the response of the eye shutting when an object comes towards it. The severity of vaginismus varies from woman to woman.
Experience of vaginismus
The conditioned reflex can create a vicious circle for vaginismic women. One example: if a teenage female learns that the first time she engages in penetrative sex that it will be painful, she may develop vaginismus because she expects pain. If she then attempts to engage in penetrative sex, the muscle spasm will make penetrative sex painful. This and each further attempt at sexual penetration confirms her fear of pain and may worsen the condition. Naturally, penetration may be extremely painful without vaginismus or psychological prerequisite as well.
Primary vaginismus occurs when a woman has never been able to have penetrative sex or achieve any kind of vaginal penetration. It is commonly discovered in teenagers and women in their early twenties, as this is when many young women in the Western world will initially attempt to use tampons, have penetrative sex, or undergo a pap smear. Women who have vaginismus may not be aware of their condition until they attempt vaginal penetration. It may be confusing for a woman to discover she has vaginismus. She may believe that vaginal penetration should be naturally easy, or she may be unaware as to the reason for her condition.
Some of the things that may cause primary vaginismus are:
- sexual abuse
- having been taught that sex is immoral or vulgar
- the fear of pain associated with penetration, particularly that of breaking the hymen upon the first attempt at sexual penetration
Secondary vaginismus occurs when a woman who has previously been able to achieve penetration develops vaginismus. This may be due to physical causes such as a yeast infection or trauma during childbirth, or it may be due to psychological causes. The treatment for secondary vaginismus is the same as for primary vaginismus, although, in these cases, previous experience with successful penetration can assist in a more rapid resolution of the condition.
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to vaginismus. These may be psychological or physiological, and the treatment required can depend on the reason that the woman has developed the condition. As each case is different, an individualized approach to treatment is useful.
The condition will not necessarily become more severe if left untreated, unless the woman is continuing to attempt penetration, despite feeling pain. Some women may choose to refrain from seeking treatment for their condition.
According to the Cochrane Collaboration review of the scientific literature, "In spite of encouraging results reported from uncontrolled case series there is very limited evidence from controlled trials concerning the effectiveness of treatments for vaginismus. Further trials are needed to compare therapies with waiting list control and with other therapies." 
Although few controlled trials have been carried out, many serious scientific studies have tested and proved the efficacy of the treatment of vaginismus. In all cases where the systematic desensitization method was used, success rates were close to 90-95% and even 100%. For an example of one of these studies, see Nasab, M., & Farnoosh, Z., or for a basic review, see Reissing's literature review. (links below)
According to Ward and Ogden's qualitative study on the experience of vaginismus for women (1994), the three highest ranked causes for vaginismus are usually:
1. Fear of painful sex, fear of pain at insertion 2. Strict religious upbringing where sex was viewed as wrong or not discussed 3. Early childhood traumatic experiences (not necessarily sexual in nature)
It is important to address the psychological aspects of the problem as well as the actual muscle spasm. A woman may choose to address the issue on her own terms, or she may avail the help of a therapist.
Many people -- even some professionals -- are not aware of the emotional difficulties associated with vaginismus, which can include low self-esteem, fears, and depression. Women with this condition may wish to seek an understanding professional who has previous experience with women who experience vaginismus. A therapist who has a positive attitude towards sex and the human body may be beneficial.
Physical treatment of the internal spasms may include sensate focus exercises, exploring the vagina through touch, and desensitization with vaginal dilators. Dilating involves inserting objects, usually phallic in shape, into the vagina. In treating the spasms through dilation, the objects used gradually increase in size as the woman progresses. Medical dilators may be obtained online, though they may be expensive. Other options include sex toys (such as dildos or vibrators), peeled cucumber, or simply her own fingers. The addition of personal lubricant can ease insertion.
If a woman suspects she has vaginismus, sexual penetration is likely to remain painful or impossible until her vaginismus is addressed. Women with vaginismus may be able to engage in other sexual activities, as long as penetration is avoided. Sexual partners of vaginismic women may come to believe that vaginismic women do not want to engage in penetrative sex at all, though this may not be true. Many vaginismic women do wish to engage in penetrative sex, but are deterred by the pain and emotional distress that comes with each attempt.
Women with vaginismus may not realize that most women who do not have vaginismus usually do experience pain or discomfort if they attempt sexual penetration without prior sexual arousal. Most women acknowledge sexual arousal as integral to painless sexual penetration so self-exploration of the vaginal area through masturbation can be beneficial in addressing vaginismus.
One of the problems that can come with vaginismus is that a woman may be fearful to engage in sexual activity, due to the fear of pain with any kind of vaginal penetration. Solo masturbation, with or without penetration, can alleviate this fear, as well as the psychological pressure to 'perform' sexually or become aroused quickly, with a partner.
Despite popular belief, orgasm need not be the goal of masturbation. The reason may be to simply increase comfort with the genital area, to explore various sensations through genital and clitoral touch, and to become aware of those sensations which are relaxing and pleasurable. Sexual arousal causes changes in the shape and color of the vulva, as well as in the vaginal lubrication produced. As a woman becomes more aware of her individual sexual response, she can learn which sensations are best for bringing her to a state of arousal. She will then be better equipped to teach her partner(s) which sensations feel best for her.
A wide range of emotions may surface during masturbation and other forms of genital exploration. Some women have negative associations with their genitals, including fears that their genitals are dirty, smelly, oddly shaped, or ugly. These associations can lead to negative emotions arising during any kind of sexual expression, including masturbation, and these emotions can take time to process. Especially in the case of a vaginismic woman, feelings of shame, inadequacy or of being 'defective' can be deeply troubling. Relaxation, patience and self-acceptance are vital to a pleasurable experience.
The process of addressing vaginismus requires time, patience, and a focused personal intention to heal. In almost all cases it can be successfully treated.
- van der Velde J, Everaerd W (2001). The relationship between involuntary pelvic floor muscle activity, muscle awareness and experienced threat in women with and without vaginismus. Behaviour research and therapy 39 (4): 395-408.
- Crowley, Tessa et al. (the BASHH Special Interest Group for Sexual Dysfunction) Recommendations for the management of vaginismus. International Journal of STD & AIDS. 17(1):14-18, January 2006. Available in PDF format at: http://www.bashh.org/committees/sig/dys_sig/bashh_vag_recomm_050106.pdf
- Nasab, M., & Farnoosh, Z. (2003). Management of vaginismus with cognitive-behavioral therapy, self-finger approach: A study of 70 cases. IJMS, 28(2).
Available on PDF at http://ijms.sums.ac.ir/28_2/69-71_Mosavi.pdf
- Reissing E. et al. (1999) Does vaginismus exist? A critical review of the literature The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 187 (5): 261-271
- WARD E, OGDEN J. (1994) Experiencing Vaginismus: sufferers beliefs about causes and effects - Sexual and Marital Therapy - Vol. 9, No. 1, pp: 33-45
Support and treatment
- Vaginismus A non-profit site to raise awareness of vaginismus, self-treat it and offer facts, advice and opinions to women, their partners and gynecologists.
- Vaginismus at the Open Directory Project
- Vaginismus entry in the Medical Dictionary at NIH
- Vaginismus – Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment & Self Help entry in NHS Direct Health Encyclopaedia (UK)
Diseases of the pelvis, genitals and breasts (N40-N99, 600-629)
|Diseases of male genital organs|
|Disorders of breast|
| Inflammatory diseases|
of female pelvic organs
| Noninflammatory disorders|
of female genital tract
Endometriosis (Adenomyosis) - Vaginal prolapse (Cystocele, Rectocele) - obstetric fistulae (Vesicovaginal fistula, Rectovaginal fistula) - Ovarian cyst - Endometrial polyp - Retroverted uterus - Hematometra - Leukorrhea - menstruation (Amenorrhoea, Oligomenorrhea, Menorrhagia, Menometrorrhagia, Metrorrhagia, Dysmenorrhea) - intercourse (Dyspareunia, Vaginismus) - Mittelschmerz
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