By Malinda Marshall
Throughout my years of practice I’ve treated many women with vulvodynia. I’ve noticed that it’s rare for women to return to 100% solely with physical therapy treatment; even though their musculoskeletal impairments may have returned to normal, some women continue to feel pain. In my experience, it takes a team of practitioners to treat vulvodynia, such as a physician who specializes in vulvar pain, a pelvic floor physical therapist, and a psychologist.
When I first looked through the schedule of the 3rd World Congress on Abdominal and Pelvic Pain for October 2017, I was excited to see that there was a session on vulvar pain and a talk scheduled for Caroline F. Pukall, Ph.D, entitled “Vulvodynia: A Biopsychosocial Approach.” Dr. Pukall is a professor of Psychology and the director of Sex Therapy Service at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. In 2015, Stephanie wrote a blog post on the International Consensus Conference on Vulvodynia Nomenclature. Dr. Pukall was one of the 28 participants in this consensus meeting. She is well versed in the terminology of vulvodynia. Her presentation turned out to be every bit as interesting as I hoped it would be: she discussed the terminology of vulvodynia, the biopsychosocial indicators for vulvodynia, and the various levels of pathophysiology of vulvodynia. She also came to the conclusion that treatment for vulvodynia needed to include doctors, physical therapists, and psychologists.
Vulvodynia is diagnosed as pain in the vulva for more than three months without an identifiable cause. However, there is a difference between vulvodynia and persistent vulvar pain: Dr. Pukall states persistent vulvar pain has an identifiable cause, such as an infection, inflammation, neoplasm (tissue grow such as a tumor), neurological, traumatic, iatrogenic (caused by a medical procedure), and/or hormonal cause. Vulvodynia is diagnosed by exclusion of these causes.
Within vulvodynia, there are many subgroups of the pain. It can be localized to one area, generalized throughout the vulva, or a mixture of the two. It can be provoked, such as with sexual intercourse, spontaneous, or both. The pain can be constantly there or intermittent. The onset of pain may be primary, meaning the pain was always there to begin with, or it can be secondary, meaning it developed later on. Dr. Pukall pointed out an important fact in her talk, which is that a patient can have vulvar pain from a specific disorder, such as lichen sclerosus, at the same time as having vulvodynia. This is important for us to keep in mind when treating vulvar pain.
As Dr. Pukall pointed out, its complex and patient-specific causes and features mean that treating vulvodynia is not simple and clear cut. It’s important to address all contributing factors; the biological, psychological, and social elements. The biological components of vulvodynia include hormonal changes, inflammation, genetics, comorbidities (such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, etc. ), and musculoskeletal, neurological, structural symptoms – all the physical things that are happening in the pelvic area, that one might expect to provide clues as to how to treat the condition. Just as important, though, are the psychological contributing factors to vulvar pain. These include mood, behavior, and self-perception. Dr. Pukall discussed how anxiety and avoidance are associated with decreased sexual function, and how hypervigilance, catastrophizing, and fear of pain can all cause increased pain. According to Dr. Pukall, women with lower “self-efficacy” (one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed) tend to have increased pain and poorer sexual function.
The last part of Dr. Pukall’s “biopsychosocial approach” refers to social factors that contribute towards vulvodynia – that is, things going on with the people around you that can feed into your pain. These social factors include problematic arousal, low desire, attachment, intimacy, communication, emotional expression, goals, abuse, and partner responses. A partner who suggests stopping all sexual activity may actually be causing more harm than good. This response can cause increased pain and lower couple sexual wellbeing. Having a partner who encourages adaptive coping and expresses positive feeling about engaging in any sexual activity, not penetrative sex, tends to bring benefits for both members of the couple. Pain seems to be modulated by the partner’s response to pain.
The take-home message for the practitioners in the audience was that the pathophysiology of vulvodynia includes pain, musculoskeletal, psychological, social, and interpersonal factors, and that the treatment for vulvodynia should include a medical doctor, a physical therapist, and a psychologist. I came out of the lecture hall determined to pass on Dr. Pukall’s message. In fact, looking at Dr Pukall’s list, I can’t help thinking that a biopsychosocial approach to vulvodynia could probably do us all a power of good!