Sexual Pain Disorders: Definition, Causes & Treatment

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  • 0:06 Sexual Pain Disorders
  • 0:40 Dyspareunia
  • 3:43 Vaginismus
  • 6:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Most healthy adults enjoy sex, but sometimes people experience pain during sex. In this lesson, we'll look closer at sexual pain disorders, their causes and their treatments.

Sexual Pain

Most adults enjoy sex and the physical sensations that come with it. But what if, instead of pleasure, sex brought pain? What if every time you wanted to be intimate with your sweetheart, you ended up experiencing the type of searing pain that made sex unappealing?

For many people, this is a very real problem. Sexual pain disorders involve feeling pain during sex and come in two varieties: dyspareunia and vaginismus. Let's look a little closer at the causes, symptoms and treatment for each of these.


Meet Joey. He's a normal, healthy adult who does not use drugs and only occasionally drinks alcohol. There's just one problem: Every time he and his wife become intimate, he experiences pain. He doesn't have any mental disorders, and he doesn't have any issues becoming aroused. Even so, every time he engages in intercourse, he feels a searing pain.

Joey goes to see a psychologist after he sees several doctors who cannot find anything physically wrong with him. His psychologist suspects that Joey might be suffering from dyspareunia, a sexual pain disorder that involves feeling pain during intercourse. Dyspareunia can affect both men and women.

In order to make sure that Joey has dyspareunia, his psychologist has to make sure of three things:

  1. The pain is recurrent or persistent and associated with sexual intercourse. Since this happens pretty much every time Joey and his wife have sex, the psychologist can confidently say that the pain is persistent and associated with sex.
  2. The pain causes distress to the individual. Joey is upset that he can't be intimate with his wife, so yes, he is experiencing distress.
  3. The pain cannot be explained by another condition. The psychologist is able to rule out medical issues and mental disorders, and the pain is not due to drug use, so Joey meets this criteria, too.

Ok, so the psychologist knows that Joey has dyspareunia, but how did he get it? There are many causes of dyspareunia, both physical and psychological in nature. Physical issues like injury, infection or deformation of the genitals can cause dyspareunia. However, it's common for psychological issues to play a prominent role. Sexual trauma, especially in women, can cause pain during sex, as can social pressures, like a family or community that disapproves of sex.

Joey's psychologist begins to talk more with him and discovers that the pain started about six months ago. Around that time, Joey had an accident and ended up with several small cuts on his genitals that caused him excruciating pain, especially during sex. Even after the cuts healed, the pain stayed. So even though it started as a physical issue, Joey has developed a psychological trauma that is causing his pain.

Once the psychologist knows the cause of his dyspareunia, she can treat Joey. Therapy is a common treatment for the psychological causes of dyspareunia. Talking with Joey and Joey's wife can help them recognize and address Joey's fears and help him move beyond them in a supportive environment.

Of course, for patients with physical ailments causing dyspareunia, drugs might also help. For example, if Joey still had the cuts on his genitals, he might be given a cream to help relieve the pain from the physical ailments, as well as therapy to help him put the trauma behind him.


Dyspareunia can affect both men and women. However, the other sexual pain disorder, vaginismus, is only found in women. Vaginismus is a pain disorder that involves pain and involuntary contraction of the muscles around the opening of the vagina. The muscle contractions make any type of penetration impossible, including non-sexual penetration, like the insertion of tampons or routine pap smears.

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