"doing mode", you're operating almost exclusively in the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system. This system is associated with the "fight or flight" response, shallow breathing patterns, muscle tension, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. These stress responses of the body not only negatively influence the pelvic floor muscles but also the overall pelvic region including bladder and bowel function, both common triggers of genital, sexual, and pelvic pain.
2. Pelvic Traumas, Injuries, or Surgeries
Injuries to the pelvic floor region caused by childbirth, previous pelvic surgeries, falls on the coccyx bone, and other accidental traumas to the region such as straddle injuries can all contribute to the development of chronic pain in the pelvis and genital area. Take for instance, the condition once known as "bikers syndrome" that affects long distance bike riders. Cumulative targeted pressure on the pudenal nerve overtime can cause damage to the nerve. This particular nerve branches out into the entire vulvar region and can therefore emit painful stimuli anywhere in the pelvic region, not just at the "sits bones".
3. Present or Past Physical, Emotional, or Sexual Abuse
Memories from past (or current) abuses are stored in pathways along the central nervous system, and even in particular muscles, especially the psoas muscle. The psoas muscle has a direct and neurological connection to the pelvic floor muscles. These bad memories that are stored by the nervous system awaken when it is feeling threatened or when trying to protect itself. Even when attempting consented, pleasurable sex, the nervous system can interpret this environment as threatening. Protective measures include muscles tension and clenching (which leads to pain, which leads to the fear of pain, which leads to further clenching), and the over-sensitization of the pelvic nerves.
4. Participation in Competitive Sports
Many popular sporting activities require tight, clenched body positions and breathing from the chest in order to perform. If we are taught by these sports (or cultural influences) to suck in our stomach and breathe from the chest and clench our buttocks at all times as a matter of "good posture" this can, over time, be detrimental to the health and function of the pelvic floor. In addition, young women who participate in sports are more likely to experience sports-related injuries such as injuries to knees, ankles, legs, and hips. If a knee, for instance, is favored for a long enough period of time the opposite pelvic area takes on more stress and can contribute to pain due to compensatory patterns.
5. Genetic, Hormonal, & Dietary Influences
Structurally the body is not symmetrical and consequently curvatures of the spine, leg length difference, being left or right footed, all have a bearing on the long-term cumulative stress on one side of the pelvis or the other. Genetic and hormonal influences can also put us at risk for other triggers commonly associated with pelvic, genital, and sexual pain. For instance, endometriosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and interstitial cystitis (painful bladder syndrome or "IC"). The dietary decisions we make also influence how and when these triggers manifest in the body. Foods can promote the inflammatory responses contributing directly to pain, but also inhibit the immune system from functioning properly.
Easing Vaginal Penetration PaiN
After our vaginal entrance pain vocab post last week, we got a good question about sexual abuse and pelvic, genital, and sexual pain. We'd like to address that in this blog post, as well as strategies for easing pain at the vaginal opening.
Q: Can sexual abuse make nerves in the vaginal opening more sensitive? If so, how do you ease the pain?
A: Sexual, physical, and emotional abuses remain so prevalent in our society and are a tremendous burden. Like anxiety, depression, stress, genetic and hormonal influences, injuries, accidental traumas, pelvic surgeries, falls and straddle injuries, abuse is a predisposing factor for female pelvic and sexual pain. This means that all of these factors can make an individual woman more inclined to these conditions. Pain that results from sexual and/or physical abuse can absolutely contribute to an over sensitization of the pain receptors at the vaginal opening (the vestibule). The experience of this “bad” pain is "remembered" by the nerves. Our nervous system stores these bad memories chemically and awakens them when it is feeling threatened and trying to protect itself (when you’re attempting pleasurable, consented sexual intercourse for example).
So sexual abuse is one of many possible traumas that can be precursors of pain and sensitivity of the vaginal opening. Vestibular pain (vestibulodynia) is by far the most common reason for entrance pain and sensitivity in the vaginal opening in reproductive aged women. It is a common subset of a condition known as Vulvodynia (pain in the vulvar or genital region of women). It is estimated that about up to 15 million women suffer from vulvodynia in the United States alone. All too commonly, even when young women are barely able to be touched by the use of tampons, having a Pap smear, or by any sexual activity, they can be diagnosed mistakenly with "yeast infections" and/or bacterial infections. Those types of infections rarely cause the severe pain and inflammation experienced with those individuals suffering with vulvodynia or "provoked" vestibulodynia.
Various oral medications to help quiet the nerves firing off in this very sensitive area are similar to medications used to quiet other hypersensitive nerves (neuropathies), in other parts of the body. These may include combinations of low doses of tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine, amitriptyline, and nortriptyline, as well as medications used in pain management for nerve related pain such as duloxetine, gabapentin, pregabalin and others. There are also various prescription ointments such as 5% Lidocaine ointment, and compounded ointments that can include medications such as amytriptyline, baclofen and gabapentin that can be helpful for some, but not all women. You can also find over the counter soothing creams, such as Medicine Mama’s V-Magic, Neogyn Cream, coconut oil, etc. Find a specialist to assist you by visiting NVA.org the web site of the National Vulvodynia Association.
In addition to medications to quiet the nerves, the brain also needs to be retrained to not perceive gentle touch as a threat. You can accomplish this by use of vaginal dilators starting with a very small dilator to allow for touch and insertion and movement and gentle pressure in the vaginal canal with low to no pain. We would recommend seeing a women's health PT to instruct you how to use the dilator to decrease the tension in your pelvic floor muscles as this can also play a role with your "ramped up nervous system". Once your muscles are more relaxed and there is increased blood flow into the vaginal region and decreased pressure placed on the nerves, then the vestibule is allowed to be less sensitive.
In addition to utilizing dilators and physical methods of retraining the brain and nervous system's responses, we recommend seeking psychotherapy with someone who specializes in treating trauma with neuro-therapies, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Neurotherapies help retrain the brain to get out of "fight, flight, or freeze" mode that is the body's normal response to stress and trauma. Addressing and healing past traumas are integral in the healing of the nervous and immune systems.
Stephanie Yeager: Passionate about spreading the word of hope and healing for those like her, influencing a paradigm shift in the medical community toward greater understanding of chronic pelvic pain disorders, and prevention initiatives that may protect young women before onset can occur.