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New Study Looks at Pain During Sexual Intercourse

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Published: 4 Apr 2002

Some women who experience pain during sexual intercourse may suffer from an unusually low pain threshold and not a sexual dysfunction as previously believed.

Some women who experience pain during sexual intercourse may suffer from an unusually low pain threshold and not a sexual dysfunction as previously believed. These conclusions, conducted by researchers at the McGill University Health Centre Research Institute, are the result of the first quantitative study of pain sensitivity in women experiencing dyspareunia. The study is published in the March issue of PAIN.

Approximately 15 percent of women in North America complain of pain during sexual intercourse, a condition known as dyspareunia, and it is hoped that this study may result in more effective treatment regimes.

"The shift in thinking of dyspareunia as a pain syndrome rather than as a sexual dysfunction is more than a semantic one," says Professor Irv Binik, director of the MUHC Sex and Couple Therapy Service, and co-investigator of this study. "The shift will have far reaching implications. It will affect how we go about studying this pain, how health professionals treat it, and how women react to the problem."

Binik, who is also a professor in the department of Psychology at McGill University, with his collaborators Caroline Pukall, PhD candidate at McGill University Department of Psychology, and Dr. Samir Khalifé, MUHC department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, compared the pain and touch sensitivity in women who experience pain during sexual intercourse with those who do not. The results showed that women with a particular type of dyspareunia, vestibular vestibulitis syndrome, have a significantly lower tolerance to pain compared with those women without dyspareunia. These lowered pain sensitivities were experienced in the genital area and elsewhere in the body, suggesting that their pain problems may be more widespread than previously believed. "It appears that these women have abnormally low pain thresholds," says Binik. "Furthermore, these women have an emotional response specific to their genital pain." These studies imply that women suffering from dyspareunia should be classified as chronic pain sufferers.

Application of chronic pain control strategies, such as behavioral therapy, surgery or acupuncture may prove more successful, for these women, than the traditional approaches to the treatment of dyspareunia.

Funding for this research was provided by Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

"Vestibular tactile and pain thresholds in women with vulvar vestibulitis syndrome," by C.F. Pukall, Y.M. Binik, S. Khalife, R. Amsel, F.V. Abbott

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