Pain during sex isn’t uncommon. It can range from a bothersome twinge that throws off your groove, to a more intense condition that become totally debilitating. If you’re dealing with below-the-belt discomfort, one reason might be something called vulvodynia, a chronic condition that nearly 16 percent of women in the U.S. suffer from at some point in their lives, reports the National Vulvodynia Association (NVA).
Vulvodynia generally causes burning, irritation, or pain, and tends to affect women ages 18 to 25. It can cause specific pain—confined to the opening right around the vagina, or even the clitoris—while other women experience a more generalized aching of the vee-jay. The NVA reports that many women with the condition say it feels like “having acid poured on my skin” and “feeling a constant knife-like pain.” (Ouch.)
But what is vulvodynia exactly? “It’s essentially inflammation of the vulva—the opening of your vagina,” says Leah Millheiser, M.D., director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University. “That’s an area of the body that has many nerve endings and sometimes those nerve endings don’t fire the right way. What that can lead to for many women is a sort of generalized burning or irritation.”
There’s two different categories of the condition, says Millheiser. “It can be either provoked, meaning you touch the area and the pain starts, or it can be unprovoked, which means you could be laying in bed and have this burning pain for no reason.”
Millheiser notes that although vulvodynia is actually pretty common, no one talks about it, so many women are left in the dark about what’s going on with all that pain down there. If you think you may have vulvodynia, here’s what you need to know about the condition, and how to deal if it’s messing with your lady parts.