Unexplained vulvar pain, also known as vulvodynia, affects millions of women worldwide. It can be so severe that it makes exercise, intercourse and even sitting unbearable.

A new study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology has now revealed that women who suffer from this painful vaginal condition have a 2 to 3 times higher risk of also developing other chronic pain conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis and fibromyalgia or musculoskeletal pain.

Michigan University researchers have found in a Health System study that these increasingly prevalent chronic pain conditions are known to be under-diagnosed and have discovered new data, which enables researchers to gain a better understanding on how they could possibly be related.

Leading researcher Barbara D. Reed, M.D., M.S.P.H., a professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School states:

“Millions of people in the U.S. have chronic pain. This report stresses the need to further study relationships between these types of disorders to help understand common patterns and shared features. Chronic pain conditions like these can seriously hamper quality of life and it’s imperative that we understand the commonality among them. Results we see in any studies related to one of the conditions, such as regarding etiology, physiology, or treatment, may be relevant to any of others.”

Reed continues saying that other research has demonstrated that chronic pain conditions are much more prevalent than estimated earlier, and interest in understanding the patterns of co-occurrence is growing.

She says:

“Women who have these disorders often see physicians but are not given a diagnosis or are given an erroneous diagnosis and continue to suffer without being treated properly. Until their symptoms have a name, it can be really discouraging because patients begin thinking it’s all in their head. Chronic pain is starting to get a lot more attention, with more research being done on all of these disorders, as well as combinations of these disorders. I think the identification and treatment of these conditions will continue to improve.”

The researchers obtained data from the six-month follow-up survey of the Michigan Woman to Woman study, which is a population-based cohort of 2,500 adult women in southeast Michigan. The original study discovered that over 25% of women surveyed in the metro Detroit area have experienced ongoing vulvar pain at some point in their lives, and that only 2% went to seek medical treatment to alleviate the pain.

Written by Petra Rattue