Clinical Review

Vulvar pain syndromes: Making the correct diagnosis

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Although condyloma is generally a painless condition, many patients complain of pain following treatment for it, whether treatment involves topical medications or laser surgery.

Chancroid is a painful vulvar ulcer. Trichomonas can sometimes be associated with vulvar pain.

Dr. Lonky: What terminology do we use when we discuss vulvar pain?

Dr. Haefner: The current terminology used to describe vulvar pain was published in 2004, after years of debate over nomenclature within the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease.5 The terminology lists two major categories of vulvar pain:

  • pain related to a specific disorder. This category encompasses numerous conditions that feature an abnormal appearance of the vulva (Table 1).


Terminology and classification of vulvar pain from the International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease

  1. Vulvar pain related to a specific disorder
  2. Vulvodynia
SOURCE: Moyal-Barracco and Lynch.5 Reproduced with permission from the Journal of Reproductive Medicine.
  • vulvodynia, in which the vulva appears normal, other than occasional erythema, which is most prominent at the duct openings (vestibular ducts—Bartholin’s and Skene’s).

As for vulvar pain, there are two major forms:

  • hyperalgesia (a low threshold for pain)
  • allodynia (pain in response to light touch).

Some diseases that are associated with vulvar pain do not qualify for the diagnosis of vulvodynia (Table 2) because they are associated with an abnormal appearance of the vulva.


Conditions other than vulvodynia that are associated with vulvar pain

Acute irritant contact dermatitis (e.g., erosion due to podofilox, imiquimod, cantharidin, fluorouracil, or podophyllin toxin)
Aphthous ulcer
Bartholin’s abscess
Chronic irritant contact dermatitis
Herpes (simplex and zoster)
Immunobullous diseases (including cicatricial pemphigoid, pemphigus vulgaris, linear immunoglobulin A disease, etc.)
Lichen planus
Lichen sclerosus
Podophyllin overdose (see above)
Prolapsed urethra
Sjögren’s syndrome
Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia

What needs to be ruled out for a diagnosis of vulvodynia?

Dr. Lonky: What skin diseases need to be ruled out before vulvodynia can be diagnosed?

Dr. Edwards: Skin diseases that affect the vulva are usually pruritic—pain is a later sign. Lichen simplex chronicus (also known as eczema) is pruritus caused by any irritant; any pain that arises is produced by visible excoriations from scratching.

Lichen sclerosus manifests as white epithelium that has a crinkling, shiny, or waxy texture. It can produce pain, especially dyspareunia. The pain is caused by erosions that arise from fragility and introital narrowing and inelasticity.

Vulvovaginal lichen planus is usually erosive and preferentially affects mucous membranes, especially the vestibule; it sometimes affects the vagina and mouth, as well.

Desquamative inflammatory vaginitis is most likely a skin disease that affects only the vagina. It involves introital redness and a clinically and microscopically purulent vaginal discharge that also reveals parabasal cells and absent lactobacilli.

Dr. Lonky: You mentioned that neurologic diseases can sometimes cause vulvar pain. Which ones?

Dr. Edwards: Pudendal neuralgia, diabetic neuropathy, and post-herpetic neuralgia are the most common specific neurologic causes of vulvar pain. Multiple sclerosis can also produce pain syndromes. Post-herpetic neuralgia follows herpes zoster—not herpes simplex—virus infection.

Dr. Lonky: Any other conditions that can cause vulvar pain?

Dr. Haefner: Aphthous ulcers are common and are often flared by stress.

Non-neoplastic epithelial disorders are also seen frequently in health-care providers’ offices; many patients who experience them report pain on the vulva.

It is always important to consider cancer when a patient has an abnormal vulvar appearance and pain that has persisted despite treatment.

What are the most common vulvar pain syndromes?

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.


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