September 19, 2019

Why Am I Having Pain During Sex?

Common reasons for pain during sex and what you can do about them.
Written by
Lydia M. Bowers
Published on
September 19, 2019
Updated on
What's changed?
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Books, movies, songs, and friends are constantly broadcasting how effortless and mind-blowing sex is. So why doesn’t that seem to be the case for you and your vagina? Why does it hurt when your partner or the cutie you're hooking up with fingers you? Why does everything feel bruised after doggy-style? Why does it feel impossible to even insert a tampon? Is this normal? Is my vagina normal? What even is normal?

Although it’s incredibly common, pain during sex is still an indication that something is wrong.

First, here are the big words:

  • Vulvodynia is the term for pain in the vulva or vagina. There’s a huge spectrum of pain—it may be present all the time, just with penetration, or only occur during particular positions or activities.
  • Vaginismus is a condition where the muscles around the opening to the vagina contract and make it painful to try to insert anything.
  • Dyspareunia is just the big word for “painful sex.” It is very common: almost a third of all vaginas experience pain with sex at some point.

While these conditions are not uncommon, the message that pain during sex is normal and to be expected is a false one. Some people have never experienced pain-free sex, so they just assume it’s part of the package. But, although it’s incredibly common, pain during sex is still an indication that something is wrong.

Pain is our bodies’ way of protecting us—it warns us to stop a damage-causing action, or to get help. Nerves detect potential damage or danger, alert the brain, which then creates the pain sensation. This means that using methods to desensitize the body (like drinking enough to dull the pain, or using numbing creams) will only cause more damage in the long run.

Using methods to desensitize the body (like drinking enough to dull the pain, or using numbing creams) will only cause more damage in the long run

Causes Of Painful Sex

There are many reasons you might be experiencing pain. Here are a few of the most common with some strategies to address them:

Vaginal Dryness Can Cause Pain During Sex

People of all ages can experience vaginal dryness. Stress, hormones, and even some medications can all contribute to dry vaginas. Without enough lubrication, friction in the vagina causes microabrasions/tears which are painful, as well as vulnerable to infection.

  • Using a store-bought lube is a first-step! A wet vagina is a happy vagina.
  • Sex is more than just penetration, so explore what else feels good. How do you like your clitoris touched? The labia have lots of nerve endings as well, so how can they be touched, stroked, licked, or kissed that make you feel good? Focus on the external before diving inside.
  • What’s your emotional state? Are you relaxed, do you feel safe and comfortable with your partner? Do you even want to be having sex? Your body may be letting you know that right now isn’t the right time (so then stop and evaluate, or go back to step 2).
People of all ages can experience vaginal dryness.

Vaginismus: Overly Tight Vaginal Muscles

Vaginismus is a condition in which muscles at the entrance of the vagina contract, rather than expand, making penetration painful or impossible. There are two types of this condition: Primary vaginismus means that penetration has always been painful, while secondary vaginismus develops later, often as a result of trauma. It’s a good idea to find a doctor who understands this condition. Advocate for yourself! Many doctors don’t understand vaginal pain, so don’t settle for being dismissed.

  • Ignore the “tight vagina” myths. Vaginas are usually between three and seven inches long, but when aroused they lengthen (like a slinky!). They also have muscle folds that expand (like an accordion!) to fit what’s inside. These accordion slinkies don’t get looser the more they’re used, or as a result of childbirth (childbirth can cause pelvic floor muscles to weaken, though).
  • Pelvic floor physical therapy can go a long way towards healing overly tight vaginal muscles. A trained physical therapist can help determine what muscles need strengthening and what needs practice relaxing.
  • Dilators are smooth cylinder objects that are often sold in a set of varying sizes. Although they look similar to smooth vibrators or dildos, they are used not by stimulating and rubbing, but simply inserting into the vaginal canal. Start with the smallest dilator in the set, and work your way up. Practicing deep breathing and muscle relaxing, while getting used to the feel of something small inside can help you gain control of those muscles again until you’re able to insert larger sizes.
Pelvic floor physical therapy can go a long way towards healing overly tight vaginal muscles

Vaginal Infections Can Also Cause Discomfort

Yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and STIs can all contribute to pussy pain. Any vaginal pain warrants getting a doctor’s opinion if possible, but some conditions can only be diagnosed with a test in a medical office.

  • Yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis have some similar symptoms, but treatment is very different. Unless a doctor looks at a sample under a microscope, the wrong OTC medication could make things worse.
  • STIs like genital herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea all cause burning vaginal pain. See a doctor to diagnose these conditions and receive treatment.
  • Dermatitis is the skin’s reaction to irritants. Soap, douches, or washes should never be used inside the vagina. Many of the products marketed as vulva cleaning products contain ingredients that can be irritating to the delicate skin. Wash your vulva with just warm water and your hand, and avoid tight-fitting underwear for a while.

Some Sex Positions May Not Work For You

As mentioned before, most vaginas are between three and seven inches long. Depending on your body, some positions may be more uncomfortable than others. Experiment to figure out what feels best for you. Doggy style tends to go deeper, and if the cervix gets bumped, it can be painful! Deeper doesn’t always feel better, so experiment to find out which sex positions feel the most comfortable for you. And remember, sex isn’t limited to just penetration!

Experiment to find out which sex positions feel the most comfortable for you

If you’re experiencing pain during sex—whether that’s all the time, or once in a while, you are not alone. Don’t settle for painful sexual activity. Although taking it slow, with lots of lube and creativity, may do it for some, listen to your body. If things still hurt, find support—whether that's a doctor, therapist, friend, or partner. You're worth it.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

With over 15 years of Early Childhood Education experience under her belt, Lydia M. Bowers now focuses on educating families to better understand childhood and adolescent sexual development. Additionally, Lydia's personal experience with pelvic pain has motivated her work with individuals dealing with pain, as well as trauma and/or shame, to reclaim pleasure.

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