Expert Commentary

Vulvar pain syndromes: Making the correct diagnosis



Dr. Lonky: If you were to rank vulvar pain syndromes according to their prevalence, what would the most common syndromes be?

Dr. Gunter: Given the misdiagnosis of many women, who are told they have chronic yeast infection, as I mentioned, it’s hard to know which vulvar pain syndromes are most prevalent. I suspect that lichen simplex chronicus is most common, followed by vulvodynia, with chronic yeast infection a distant third.

My experience reflects what Nyirjesy and colleagues4 found: 65% to 75% of women referred to my clinic with chronic yeast actually have lichen simplex chronicus or vulvodynia. In postmenopausal women, atrophic vaginitis is also a consideration; it’s becoming more common now that the use of systemic hormone replacement therapy is decreasing.

Dr. Lonky: What about subsets of vulvodynia? Which ones are most common?

Dr. Edwards: There is good evidence of marked overlap among subsets of vulvodynia. The vast majority of women who have vulvodynia experience primarily provoked vestibular pain, regardless of age. However, I find that almost all patients also report pain that extends beyond the vestibule at times, as well as occasional unprovoked pain.

The diagnosis requires the exclusion of other causes of vulvar pain, and the subset is identified by the location of pain (that is, is it strictly localized or generalized or even migratory?) and its provoked or unprovoked nature.

Localized clitoral pain and vulvar pain localized to one side of the vulva are extremely uncommon, but they do occur. And although I rarely encounter teenagers and prepubertal children who have vulvodynia, I do have patients in both age groups who have vulvodynia.

Dr. Lonky: Are there racial differences in the prevalence of vulvodynia?

Dr. Edwards: Although several good studies show that women of African descent and white patients are equally likely to experience vulvodynia, the vast majority (99%) of my patients who have vulvodynia are white. My patients of African descent consult me primarily for itching or discharge.

My local demographics prevent me from judging the likelihood of Asians having vulvodynia, and our Hispanic population has limited access to health care.

In general, I don’t think that demographics are useful in making the diagnosis of vulvodynia.


Dr. Lonky: Do your patients who have vulvodynia or another vulvar pain syndrome tend to have comorbidities? If so, is this information helpful in establishing the diagnosis and planning therapy?

Dr. Haefner: Women who have vulvodynia often have other medical problems as well. In my practice, when new patients who have vulvodynia complete their intake survey, they often report a history of headache, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia,6 chronic fatigue syndrome, back pain, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. These comorbidities are not particularly helpful in establishing the diagnosis of vulvodynia, but they are an important consideration when choosing therapy for the patient. Often, the medications chosen to treat one condition will also benefit another condition. However, it’s important to check for potential interactions between drugs before prescribing a new treatment.

Dr. Gunter: A significant number of women who have vulvodynia also have other chronic pain syndromes. For example, the incidence of bladder pain syndrome–interstitial cystitis is 68% to 82% among women who have vulvodynia, compared with a baseline rate among all women of 6% to 11%.7-10 The rate of irritable bowel syndrome is more than doubled among women who have vulvodynia, compared with the general population (27% versus 12%).8 Another common comorbidity, hypertonic somatic dysfunction of the pelvic floor, is identified in 10% to 90% of women who have chronic vulvar pain.8,11,12 These women also have a higher incidence of nongenital pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia, migraine, and TMJ dysfunction, than the general population, as Dr. Haefner noted.8,12,13

Many studies have evaluated psychological and emotional contributions to chronic vulvar pain. Pain and depression are intimately related—the incidence of depression among all people who experience chronic pain ranges from 27% to 54%, compared with 5% to 17% among the general population.14-16 The relationship is complex because chronic illness in general is associated with depression. Nevertheless, several studies have noted an increase in anxiety, stress, and depression among women who have vulvodynia.17-19

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