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Alternative Names
painful sexual intercourse, pain with intercourse

Dyspareunia is pain in or at the entrance of the vagina when the penis is inserted during sexual intercourse.

What is going on in the body?
Pain during sexual intercourse can be upsetting. The cause of the pain may be hard to find. There might be physical and psychological causes.

Physical causes may be within the female reproductive tract, including the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, Fallopian tubes, ovaries and abdominal cavity.

Some women may assume that sex will be painful. Or they might associate menstruation and childbirth with pain. Even when no physical causes are found and the pain is gone, the memory of the pain may persist. This can interfere with pleasure. The range of physical and psychological factors that prevent a woman from enjoying a sexual relationship should be considered.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Dyspareunia may be divided into two categories, superficial and deep. Superficial means that there is immediate pain at the opening of the vagina when a man attempts to insert the penis. The most likely reasons for this are tears, infections or structural defects of the vulva or vagina.

Deep dyspareunia means that there is pelvic pain or discomfort after penetration of the penis. This is usually associated with deep thrusting. The likely causes are abnormalities of the deeper structures of the vagina. Typical symptoms include:
  • immediate vaginal pain with attempted penile or finger penetration.
  • poor lubrication.
  • tearing sensation of the vulva or vagina.
  • deep pain or cramping with pelvic thrusts.
  • nausea with deep thrusts.
  • rectal pressure, pain with sexual intercourse.
  • muscle spasms that anticipate vaginal penetration.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Complications involving the vaginal opening that can cause dyspareunia can include:
  • no opening in the hymen.
  • after childbirth, a pain at site of the episiotomy, the incision made to enlarge the vaginal opening.
  • inflammation of the vagina, or vaginitis.
  • cyst or abscess.
  • infection of sweat or mucous glands.
Complications involving the clitoris can include:
  • irritations, inflammation.
  • infections.
  • abrasions due to trauma, recent intercourse, etc.
Complications involving the vagina can include:
  • infections.
  • sensitivity to medications, spermicides.
  • vaginal inflammation after birth or during menopause
  • decreased lubrication, due to menopause, partner impatience, not enough foreplay
Complications involving the uterus and Fallopian tubes leading to the ovaries can include:
  • endometriosis
  • endometritis, or infection of the uterus.
  • ectopic pregnancy, which is a pregnancy outside the uterus.
  • pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
  • pelvic adhesions or scar tissue from previous abdominal surgeries.
Complications involving the ovaries can include:
  • cysts.
  • endometriomas
  • adhesions, or scar tissue from previous surgery or infection.
Psychological complications can include a history of:
  • incest
  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  • emotional abuse
  • alcohol dependence.
  • substance abuse.
  • cultural-religious inhibitions.
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Prevention depends on the cause. Using safer sex practices will prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted disease (STDs). This may prevent other complications. Sensitivity foreplay and patience will allow for more vaginal lubrication. If oestrogen levels are low, oestrogen supplements may help. Psychological causes for sexual inhibitions should be explored and treated.

How is the condition diagnosed?
A medical history and pelvic examination will help to determine the cause of dyspareunia. The following tests or procedures may be used:
  • visual inspection and touching of the reproductive organs.
  • cervical cultures to rule out infections.
  • ultrasound.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
The long-term effects rely on breaking or preventing a cycle of pain, negative memories, and avoiding sex. This cycle may destroy a sexually intimate relationship.

If other physical problems exist, diagnosis and treatment may prevent long-term complications.

What are the risks to others?
Dyspareunia is not a contagious condition. If the cause of dyspareunia is an untreated STD, there is a risk of spreading the disease to a partner.

What are the treatments for the condition?
Sensitivity, foreplay and patience from the sexual partner will allow for more lubrication of the vagina. If oestrogen deficiency is the cause vaginal oestrogen creams may prevent small cuts. Psychological evaluation for sexual inhibitions/sexual trauma should be checked and treated. Antibiotics are used for infections.

Endometriosis is treated with birth control pills, progesterones, which are female hormones, gonadotropin agonists, which counter the effect of certain hormones, and laser surgery. If an ectopic pregnancy or severe endometriosis is found, immediate surgery is needed. For the woman with severe vaginismus, or involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles when touched, a program of gradual vaginal expansion is needed. Dilators, the woman's fingers or the partner's fingers along with psychotherapy may be helpful.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects depend upon the treatment used. Oral contraceptives and progesterones may cause nausea, abdominal bloating, weight gain and swelling. Antibiotics have individual side effects. Gonadotropin agonists may cause hot flushes, headaches, lack of menstrual periods and mood swings.

How is the condition monitored?
The doctor must be patient and explain the many causes of dyspareunia. The treatment options must be made clear. If there are no physical causes, a psychological reason should be explored. Reasons may include previous sexual abuse, confusion over sexual preference and desire, dissatisfaction with the relationship and depression.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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