Barbara D. Reed, M.D., M.S.P.H. was lead author of the study into the prevalence of vulvar pain.

Underdiagnosed and Undertreated

25 percent of women have had symptoms of vulvodynia; only 2 percent sought treatment

issue 14 | winter 2012

For many women, chronic vulvar pain is so severe it makes intercourse — and sometimes sitting for long periods of time — painful, if not impossible.

A new U-M study, which surveyed 2,269 women in the metro Detroit area, found that more than 25 percent of women have experienced ongoing vulvar pain at some point in their lives. However, only 2 percent of those women sought treatment for their pain.

For some, vulvar pain may be caused by activities like biking, tampon use or intercourse, and for others it can be a persistent, spontaneous pain that can last for up to 40 years. Pain ranges from slight discomfort to knife-like pain. Common treatments, including topical creams, are typically directed toward alleviating symptoms and usually only provide partial pain relief.

The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that aside from the 9.2 percent of women who reported that they were currently experiencing pain consistent with vulvodynia, an additional 17.9 percent of women reported they have experienced symptoms of vulvodynia in the past.

That factors to more than 318,000 women in southeast Michigan alone.

"What this means for area women is that vulvar pain is common, it has a name, and it can be addressed with their physicians," says Barbara D. Reed, M.D., M.S.P.H, a professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School and lead author of the study.

What researchers have found concerning is that of the 2 percent of women who sought treatment for their pain, only 5 percent received a diagnosis of vulvodynia. Many women were misdiagnosed with either yeast infections or estrogen deficiency. The subsequent treatment plans that were recommended did little to alleviate their pain, suggesting misdiagnosis of what was causing their symptoms.