What Causes Vulvodynia to Flare up?

 A woman holding her bare lower stomach

Few things are more frustrating than chronic and unexplained pain -- especially when it involves your genitals. Vulvodynia is one such disturbance that can seem to come out of nowhere, and either be persistent or short-lived; there is no way to predict it and no instant cure. There are, however, ways to alleviate the flare-up and make the pain manageable.

It’s estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to six million women (from their teens onward) are affected by vulvodynia. As far as what actually causes a vulvodynia flare up? The closest answer stems from what ismost likelyto contribute. Vulvodynia and  vulvar vestibulitis syndrome (VVS) are more likely to happen to women who have the autoimmune conditions Sjogren's Syndrome and  lupus erythematosus; fibromyalgia is also now linked vulvodynia and VVS.

What does a vulvodynia flare up feel like?

The most common sensations includeburning, stinging, aching, throbbing (or general soreness) in and around the vulva.According to the National Vulvodynia Association, one woman reported her pain felt like “acid being poured on my skin,” while another described it as “constant knife-like pain.”For the most part, the vulva and vagina might appear normal on the outside, although some redness and inflammation might be present. The magnitude of the agonizing pain and psychologically-intrusive feeling certainly outweighs the look of it. 

What causes a vulvodynia flare up?

A woman might experience vulvodynia painoften or just once in a while. While there is no clear indicator as to what causes it(therefore, a definite answer is not possible),consistent anecdotal reports have linked flare ups to the following activities or situations:

  • Sexual intercourse
  • Exercise – in particular cycling (but even light exercise such as walking)
  • Inserting tampons
  • Irritating contraceptive creams or spermicides
  • Sitting for too long (especially in damp gym clothing or swimwear)
  • Using astringent or perfumed soaps, shampoos, douches and toilet paper
  • Wearing non-breathable underwear in synthetic fabrics like nylon or polyester
  • Wearing tight-fitting pants
  • Coming into contact with chemicals such as chlorine
  • Presence of bacteria and residue urine
  • Pressure on the bowel or bladder

What helps a vulvodynia flare up?

The education platform,  Healthy Women, has some additional “lifestyle tips” that might help women to cope during a vulvodynia flare-up:

  • Avoid tight-fitting pants; don't wear pantyhose.
  • Use plenty of water-soluble lubricant with all sexual activity.
  • Steer clear of perfumed creams or soaps, pads or tampons and contraceptive creams or spermicides.
  • Don't use douches or vaginal wipes.
  • Refrain from exercises that are likely to place added pressure on the vulva, such as bicycling and horseback riding. However, try gentle exercise, such as yoga, or exercise that focuses on upper-body strength, toimprove circulation and increase the production of natural pain-relieving substances (endorphins) in your body. 
  • Wear 100 percent cotton underwear.
  • Seek the emotional support you need.  Many women with episodic vulvodynia become anxious and worried about their next pain flare-up. While chronic vulvar pain can be an embarrassing topic, it's important to try to talk openly about it with your partner. Don't let the pain overshadow you. 
  • Try to relax to reduce stress.  Stress can increase blood pressure, reduce the immune system's ability to fight infection, and affect hormone production, including turning on cortisone production in the adrenal glands and upsetting the balance between estrogen and progesterone. There are many relaxation techniques you can easily learn and practice at home, including focusing (what women in labor are advised to do), meditation, deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. 

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