When Sex Hurts

by The HealthCentral Editorial Team

Sex is supposed to feel good, but for many women, sex can actually be painful. Read on to find out what you can do if you -- or your partner -- find sex painful.

Jenna's Story "I used to find sex unbearable," says Jenna, 24, a grad-student at Columbia University in New York City. Last year, when Jenna was hooking up with different guys, she found that sex was literally a pain in her private parts. "I felt ashamed and embarrassed because none of my friends had this problem," she remembers.

A Common Misconception Painful sex is not just a problem for prudes or asexual people. "Many women experience some degree of pain during intercourse at some point in their life," says Adelaide Nardone, M.D., a gynecologist in private practice in Mount Kisco, NY.

Painful intercourse, or dyspareunia, is quite common, and there are numerous factors that may contribute to the problem, both emotional and physical. The good news is that in most cases the problem is treatable. First, however, you need to figure out the cause.

In Jenna's case, her pain was caused by the fact that she became nervous and rushed through foreplay in order to "get it over with." As a result, she was insufficiently relaxed and aroused. This led to vaginal drynessand a feeling of tightness.

Are You Aroused? Painful intercourse can be your body's way of telling you that you don't really want to have sex. "Painful intercourse can result from diminished desire. In young women, this may be because they have a fear of being caught, getting pregnant, or contracting a sexually transmitted disease," says Nardone. These concerns can interfere with a woman's ability to become aroused, she adds.

"If a women is not aroused, she may not lubricate well. This in and of itself can cause painful intercourse," says Nardone. Repeated pain during intercourse can trigger a viscous cycle that makes it increasingly difficult to relax and become aroused, she adds. Vaginal dryness, one of the most common causes of painful sex, can also be caused by a variety of other factors such as drinking alcohol, taking antihistamines or decreased estrogen levels. Some women, even when aroused, produce insufficient lubrication. Fortunately, lubricants like KY Jelly or Astroglide are available at most drugstores and can make intercourse much less painful.

You should discuss these and other possible causes of vaginal dryness with your gynecologist. Nardone suggests asking yourself the following questions to gauge your mental, emotional, and physical readiness for sex:

  • Do you feel safe and comfortable with your partner?

  • Are you comfortable with your decision to have sex?

  • Are you aroused and lubricated (wet) before you attempt penetration?

  • Are you using proper protection against pregnancy and STDs?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you should consider postponing intercourse until you are more comfortable.

Vaginismus Vaginismus, another cause for painful intercourse, is very common among young women who are not ready to have intercourse. Women suffering from this condition experience severe vaginal spasms and contractions. This tightening of the vagina makes intercourse nearly impossible.

"This condition may be the result of sexual abuse or a bad childhood memory. There may be an underlying problem which may need to be addressed and treated with the help of a gynecologist and a sex therapist," says Nardone.

Why You Need to See a Gynecologist Other causes of painful sex can include a vaginal infection, irritation from too much sex, an allergic reaction to condoms, too much exercise, or too much bike riding. In order to rule out a serious problem or infection, Nardone recommends that every sexually active woman see a gynecologist regularly (important for all sexually active women, even if sex is not painful). "Remember always to practice safe sex and to have sex only when you are totally ready, willing and able," she says.

The HealthCentral Editorial Team
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The HealthCentral Editorial Team

HealthCentral's team of editors based in New York City and Arlington, VA, collaborates with patient advocates, medical professionals, and health journalists worldwide to bring you medically vetted information and personal stories from people living with chronic conditions to help you navigate the best path forward with your health—no matter your starting point.