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Painful vaginal sex (dyspareunia)

Painful vaginal sex is common and many people experience it at some stage in their lives. ‘Dyspareunia’ is the medical term used to describe pain before, during or after vaginal sex. Vaginal sex includes sexual activities that involve vaginal penetration – with or without a partner.

It’s normal to lose interest in sex if you experience pain. Learn more about painful vaginal sex, including the symptoms, causes and what you can do.

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What is painful vaginal sex (dyspareunia)?

Painful vaginal sex is pain before, during or after vaginal intercourse. It can be caused by physical and emotional factors. There are many ways to treat painful sex and improve your sexual experience.

Symptoms of painful vaginal sex

If you have painful vaginal sex, you might feel:

  • entry pain
  • deep pain
  • burning or aching pain
  • throbbing pain that can continue after penetration.

What causes painful vaginal sex?

Entry pain

Pain with penetration may be caused by:

  • a difference in size between you and your partner
  • lack of lubrication due to lack of arousal or certain medicines (e.g. antidepressants)
  • vaginal dryness due to lower oestrogen levels, common when breastfeeding and after menopause (vaginal atrophy)
  • chronic pain or discomfort in the vulva (vulvodynia)
  • pelvic floor muscle spasms (vaginismus)
  • nerve damage in the pelvic area (pudendal neuralgia)
  • infections (e.g. thrush or sexually transmitted infections)
  • injury or trauma (e.g. an accident, surgery or tears during childbirth)
  • a physical problem that is present from birth (e.g. a thick hymen).

Deep pain

Deep pain is usually associated with deep penetration (i.e. thrusting). Causes may include:

  • illnesses
  • conditions (e.g. endometriosis, cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic inflammatory disease)
  • adhesions or scarring due to surgery (e.g. a hysterectomy).

Emotional factors

Emotional factors may affect your sexual experiences and associated pain. For example:

  • psychological issues (e.g. anxiety, depression, relationship problems, feeling self-conscious, fear of intimacy)
  • stress, which may cause your pelvic floor muscles to tighten or become ‘overactive’
  • previous experience of painful sex
  • previous experience of sexual abuse or trauma.

How is dyspareunia diagnosed?

Dyspareunia is usually diagnosed via a clinical examination. Your doctor will ask about your pain (e.g. where it hurts, how it feels, if it has happened with each partner and in different sexual positions). They may also ask about medical, sexual and family history, childbirth and past surgeries. These questions will help to find the cause of your pain.

Your doctor should also do a physical examination to check for signs of infection, irritation or physical problems. This usually involves gently touching your vulva and pelvic area to locate the pain. They might insert a plastic or metal instrument (speculum) into your vagina to check where the pain is coming from. If you find this too painful, you can ask your doctor to stop.

You may need other tests, such as a pelvic ultrasound, if your doctor thinks the condition is inside your pelvis.

If you have vaginal discharge or urinary symptoms, they may also take samples for testing.

Treatment and management

Treatment options depend on the cause of your pain. Your doctor may recommend:

  • lubricant creams and gels
  • vaginal moisturisers
  • vaginal oestrogen cream or pessaries
  • menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) to improve general wellbeing around the time of menopause
  • changing medicines (e.g. contraception)
  • seeing a psychologist or sex therapist to help reduce your fear of pain
  • relationship counselling
  • seeing a qualified pelvic floor physiotherapist to help with techniques such as pelvic floor muscle relaxation, trigger-point therapy, vaginal trainers or soft tissue and vaginal massage.

Watch this video on Vimeo featuring Jean Hailes physiotherapist, Janetta Webb, talking about pelvic floor physiotherapy for the management and treatment of dyspareunia.

What you can do

There are different things you can do to improve your sexual experience.

  • Tell your partner what you like or don’t like – and stop sex if you feel pain.
  • Change sexual positions or techniques. If you experience pain during thrusting, sit on top of your partner so you can control the depth of penetration. You can also try different or longer foreplay to increase your arousal.
  • Use lubricants to increase arousal and comfort during sex.
  • Focus on yourself. Try to switch off any worries, tune in to your body and enjoy the moment.
  • Be intimate in different ways. If you have a partner, try kissing, cuddling, massage, mutual masturbation and oral sex. This may enhance your sexual desire.
  • Try a vaginal dilator (a tube-shaped device to stretch your vagina) or a small vibrator. These may help you to relax your pelvic floor muscles.

When to see your doctor

If you are experiencing painful sex, see your doctor. They will find and treat the cause or refer you to a specialist. It’s a good idea to seek help as soon as possible so you can resolve the issue and enjoy a healthy sex life.

This con­tent has been reviewed by a group of med­ical sub­ject mat­ter experts, in accor­dance with Jean Hailes pol­i­cy.

Last updated: 
11 May 2024
 | 
Last reviewed: 
12 December 2023

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