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Vaginismus, sometimes anglicized vaginism, is the condition that affects a woman's ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual intercourse, insertion of tampons and/or menstrual cups, and the penetration involved in gynecological examinations. This is the result of a 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 intercourse—painful or impossible.
A woman suffering from vaginismus 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, as well as the pain during penetration (including sexual penetration), varies from woman to woman.
A woman is said to have primary vaginismus when she has never been able to have penetrative sex or experience vaginal penetration without pain. It is commonly discovered in teenagers and women in their early twenties, as this is when many young women in the Western world first attempt to use tampons, have penetrative sex, or undergo a Pap smear. Women with vaginismus may be unaware of the condition until they attempt vaginal penetration. A woman may be unaware of the reasons for her condition.
A few of the main factors that may contribute to primary vaginismus include:
- a condition called vulvar vestibulitis syndrome, more or less synonymous with focal vaginitis, a so-called sub-clinical inflammation, in which no pain is perceived until some form of penetration is attempted
- urinary tract infections
- vaginal yeast infections
- sexual abuse, rape, other sexual assault, or attempted sexual abuse or assault
- knowledge of (or witnessing) sexual or physical abuse of others, without being personally abused
- domestic violence or similar conflict in the early home environment
- fear of pain associated with penetration, particularly the popular misconception of "breaking" the hymen upon the first attempt at penetration, or the idea that vaginal penetration will inevitably hurt the first time it occurs
- chronic pain conditions and harm-avoidance behaviour
- any physically invasive trauma (not necessarily involving or even near the genitals)
- generalized anxiety
- negative emotional reaction towards sexual stimulation, e.g. disgust both at a deliberate level and also at a more implicit level
- strict conservative moral education, which also can elicit negative emotions
Vaginismus has been classified by Lamont according to the severity of the condition. He describes four degrees of vaginismus: In first degree vaginismus, the patient has spasm of the pelvic floor that can be relieved with reassurance. In second degree, the spasm is present but maintained throughout the pelvis even with reassurance. In third degree, the patient elevates the buttocks to avoid being examined. In fourth degree vaginismus (also known as grade 4 vaginismus), the most severe form of vaginismus, the patient elevates the buttocks, retreats and tightly closes the thighs to avoid examination. Pacik expanded the Lamont classification to include a fifth degree in which the patient experiences a visceral reaction such as sweating, hyperventilation, palpitations, trembling, shaking, nausea, vomiting, losing consciousness, wanting to jump off the table, or attacking the doctor. The Lamont classification continues to be used to the present and allows for a common language among researchers and therapists.
Though spasm of the pubococcygeus muscle is commonly thought to be the primary muscle involved in vaginismus, Pacik identified two additionally-involved spastic muscles in treated patients under sedation. These include the entry muscle (bulbocavernosum) and the mid-vaginal muscle (puborectalis). Spasm of the entry muscle accounts for the common complaint that patients often report when trying to have intercourse: "It's like hitting a brick wall".
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, while in some cases it may be due to psychological causes, or to a combination of 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. Peri-menopausal and menopausal vaginismus, often due to a drying of the vulvar and vaginal tissues as a result of reduced estrogen, may occur as a result of "micro-tears" first causing sexual pain then leading to vaginismus.
A study of vaginismus in women in Morocco and Sweden found a prevalence of 6%. 18-20% of women in British and Australian studies were found to have manifest dyspareunia, while the rate among elderly British women was as low as 2%.
A 1990 study of women presenting to sex therapy clinics found reported vaginismus rates of between 12% and 17%, while a random sampling and structured interview survey conducted in 1994 by National Health and Sexual Life Survey documented 10%-15% of women reported that in the past six months they had experienced pain during intercourse.
The most recent study-based estimates of vaginismus incidence range from 5% to 47% of people presenting for sex therapy or complaining of sexual problems, with significant differences across cultures (see Reissing et al. 1999; Nusbaum 2000; Oktay 2003). It seems likely that a society's expectations of women's sexuality may particularly impact on these sufferers.
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to vaginismus. These may be physical or psychological, and the treatment required depends on the individual. 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.
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 supported the efficacy of the treatment of vaginismus. In all cases where the systematic desensitization method was used, success rates were approximately 90% or better. 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). A Dutch study showed that many women were subsequently able to be penetrated, but far fewer women actually enjoyed being penetrated.
Treatment is the use of either a vaginal dilator or now more commonly known vaginal acceptance trainers. Vaginal dilators are graduated or tapered blunt-ended probes. They come in different sizes, the first no larger than the size in length and diameter of a tampon, and the last approximately the size of the partner's penis. Vaginal Acceptance Trainers are more ergonomic and flexible and take the shape of the vagina without the need to stretch delicate vaginal tissue. Women can perform dilator therapy at home, though many will need professional guidance. Here, the woman can work with a trusted nurse practitioner, doctor, specialized physical therapist, or other person trained in sexual dysfunction and disorder, to help her organize a therapeutic program to assist her in overcoming her fear of penetration.
According to Ward and Ogden's qualitative study on the experience of vaginismus for women (1994), the three most common contributing factors to vaginismus are fear of painful sex; the belief that sex is wrong or shameful (often the case with patients who had a strict religious upbringing); and traumatic early childhood experiences (not necessarily sexual in nature).
Vaginismus patients are twice as likely to have a history of childhood sexual interference and held less positive attitudes about their sexuality, whereas no correlation was noted for lack of sexual knowledge or (non-sexual) physical abuse.
For the majority of women with vaginismus, the psychological aspects must be addressed alongside the physical manifestations. Some women, especially those with secondary vaginismus, may rely on a physical rather than psychological treatment and also be successful. There are emotional difficulties associated with vaginismus, even for women whose vaginismus has a purely physical cause, which can include low self-esteem, relationship issues, continuing fear of penetration, and depression.
A pelvic physical therapist can assess hypertonic pelvic muscles that often affect and/or cause Vaginismus through the implementation of a multi-modal approach in treatment.
Pelvic physical therapy involves both external and internal modalities. Internal treatment is achieved by the insertion of one finger into the vagina in order to palpate internal muscles, and assess any connective tissue restrictions or "knots" also known as myofascial trigger points. If a vaginal acceptance trainer is used as alternative treatment, then no physical intervention is required as the vaginal acceptance trainer replaces the need for finger insertion which may be more suited for people with certain religious or cultural beliefs.
Vaginismus is currently defined by the DSM –IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington D.C.) as Recurrent or persistent involuntary spasm of the musculature of the outer third of the vagina that interferes with sexual intercourse. Botulinum toxin A (Botox) has been shown to have a calming effect on spastic muscles and has been used successfully in vaginismus treatment.
If a woman suspects she has vaginismus, sexual penetration is likely to remain painful or truly impossible until her vaginismus is addressed. This is a highly frustrating condition, as other people, including doctors, may speculate negatively on the origin or existence of her difficulties. Vaginismus does not mean that a woman does not want intercourse or does not love her partner. Women with vaginismus may be able to engage in a variety of 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 for most such women. There is currently no indication that vaginismus reduces the sexual drive or arousal of affected women, and as such it is likely that many vaginismic women wish to engage in penetrative sex to the same degree as unaffected women, but are deterred by the pain and emotional distress that accompanies each attempt. Psychological pressure to "perform" sexually or become aroused quickly with a partner can deter the sufferer from future attempts and/or cause her vaginismus to become more severe.
A woman who is interested in having (or, at minimum, willing to have) intercourse, and finds that her vagina responds with a reflex that makes intercourse impossible, is likely to experience a wide range of emotions, from amazement to grief to embarrassment. Some women may already have negative associations with their genitals, including fears that their genitals are ugly, dirty, or sinful.
These associations can lead to negative emotions arising during any kind of sexual expression, including masturbation, and these emotions can take time to process. Feelings of shame, inadequacy or a fear of being "defective" can be deeply troubling. If multiple attempts at penetration are made before treating vaginismus, it may lead to fear of sexual intercourse, and worsen the amount of pain experienced with each subsequent attempt. Relaxation, patience and self-acceptance are vital to a pleasurable experience.
- Reissing, Elke; Yitzchak Binik, Samir Khalife (May 1999). "Does Vaginismus Exist? A Critical Review of the Literature". The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 187 (5): 261–274. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
- Pacik PT (December 2009). "Botox treatment for vaginismus". Plast. Reconstr. Surg. 124 (6): 455e–6e. doi:10.1097/PRS.0b013e3181bf7f11. PMID 19952618.
- Borg, Charmaine; Peters, L. M., Weijmar Schultz, W., de Jong, P. J. ((in press)). "Vaginismus: Heightened Harm Avoidance and Pain Catastrophic Cognitions". Journal of Sexual Medicine.
- Borg, Charmaine; Peter J. De Jong, Willibrord Weijmar Schultz (June 2010). "Vaginismus and Dyspareunia: Automatic vs. Deliberate: Disgust Responsivity". Journal of Sexual Medicine 7 (6): 2149–2157. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01800.x.
- Borg, Charmaine; Peter J. de Jong, Willibrord Weijmar Schultz (Jan 2011). "Vaginismus and Dyspareunia: Relationship with General and Sex-Related Moral Standards". Journal of Sexual Medicine 8 (1): 223–231. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.02080.x.
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