Although the incidence of vulvar pain has increased over the past decade—thanks to both greater awareness and increasing numbers of affected women—the phenomenon is not a recent development. As early as 1874, T. Galliard Thomas wrote, “[T]his disorder, although fortunately not very frequent, is by no means very rare.”1 He went on to express “surprise” that it had not been “more generally and fully described.”
Despite the focus Thomas directed to the issue, vulvar pain did not get much attention until the 21st century, when a number of studies began to gauge its prevalence. For example, in a study in Boston of about 5,000 women, the lifetime prevalence of chronic vulvar pain was 16%.2 And in a study in Texas, the prevalence of vulvar pain in an urban, largely minority population was estimated to be 11%.3 The Boston study also reported that “nearly 40% of women chose not to seek treatment, and, of those who did, 60% saw three or more doctors, many of whom could not provide a diagnosis.”2
Clearly, there is a need for comprehensive information on vulvar pain and its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. To address the lack of guidance, OBG Management Contributing Editor Neal M. Lonky, MD, assembled a panel of experts on vulvar pain syndromes and invited them to share their considerable knowledge. The ensuing discussion, presented in three parts, offers a gold mine of information.
In this opening article, the panel focuses on causes, symptomatology, and diagnosis of this common complaint. In Part 2, which will appear in the October issue of this journal, the focus is the bounty of treatment options. Part 3 follows in November, when the discussion shifts to vestibulodynia.
The lower vagina and vulva are richly supplied with peripheral nerves and are, therefore, sensitive to pain, particularly the region of the hymeneal ring. Although the pudendal nerve (arrow) courses through the area, it is an uncommon source of vulvar pain.
Common diagnoses—and misdiagnoses
Dr. Lonky: What are the most common diagnoses when vulvar pain is the complaint?
Dr. Gunter: The most common cause of chronic vulvar pain is vulvodynia, although lichen simplex chronicus, chronic yeast infections, and non-neoplastic epithelial disorders, such as lichen sclerosus and lichen planus, can also produce irritation and pain. In postmenopausal women, atrophic vaginitis can also cause a burning pain, although symptoms are typically more vaginal than vulvar. Yeast and lichen simplex chronicus typically produce itching, although sometimes they can present with irritation and pain, so they must be considered in the differential diagnosis. It is important to remember that many women with vulvodynia have used multiple topical agents and may have developed complex hygiene rituals in an attempt to treat their symptoms, which can result in a secondary lichen simplex chronicus.
That said, there is a high frequency of misdiagnosis with yeast. For example, in a study by Nyirjesy and colleagues, two thirds of women who were referred to a tertiary clinic for chronic vulvovaginal candidiasis were found to have a noninfectious entity instead—most commonly lichen simplex chronicus and vulvodynia.4
Dr. Edwards: The most common “diagnosis” for vulvar pain is vulvodynia. However, the definition of vulvodynia is pain—i.e., burning, rawness, irritation, soreness, aching, or stabbing or stinging sensations—in the absence of skin disease, infection, or specific neurologic disease. Therefore, even though the usual cause of vulvar pain is vulvodynia, it is a diagnosis of exclusion, and skin disease, infection, and neurologic disease must be ruled out.
In regard to infection, Candida albicans and bacterial vaginosis (BV) are usually the first conditions that are considered when a patient complains of vulvar pain, but they are not common causes of vulvar pain and are never causes of chronic vulvar pain. Very rarely they may cause recurrent pain that clears, at least briefly, with treatment.
Candida albicans is usually primarily pruritic, and BV produces discharge and odor, sometimes with minor symptoms. Non-albicans Candida (e.g., Candida glabrata) is nearly always asymptomatic, but it occasionally causes irritation and burning.
Group B streptococcus is another infectious entity that very, very occasionally causes irritation and dyspareunia but is usually only a colonizer.
Herpes simplex virus is a cause of recurrent but not chronic pain.
Chronic pain is more likely to be caused by skin disease than by infection. Lichen simplex chronicus causes itching; any pain is due to erosions from scratching.
Dr. Haefner: Several other infectious conditions or their treatments can cause vulvar pain. For example, herpes (particularly primary herpes infection) is classically associated with vulvar pain. The pain is so great that, at times, the patient requires admission for pain control. Surprisingly, despite the known pain of herpes, approximately 80% of patients who have it are unaware of their diagnosis.