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Is this normal? When to call the doctor

Kori Ellis is an editor and writer based in San Antonio, TX, where she lives with her husband and four children. At SheKnows, she writes about parenting, fashion, beauty and other lifestyle topics. Additionally, Kori has been published i...

Sex questions answered

When it comes to sexual problems and women's health issues, distinguishing what's normal and what's not can be difficult. We consulted experts across the country to discuss common problems and find out when you need to call a doctor.

Painful sex

Is pain during sex normal?

We were fortunate enough to consult Dr. Tina Groat, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.C.O.G., national medical director of the women's health line of service for UnitedHealthcare. She provided an in-depth explanation about pain during sexual intercourse.

The medical term for pain during sex is "dyspareunia," and it should never be considered a "normal" sensation during sex. It is actually quite common in women, though; in fact, according to research from the Mayo Clinic, about one woman in five experiences pain right before, during or after intercourse at some point in her life.

Depending on the cause, pain can be felt in a range of internal and external areas and, if severe, can seriously affect a woman's ability to enjoy or engage in intercourse or other sexual relations. Women typically complain of experiencing the following types of pain:

  • Sharp pain with any/all penetration (even inserting a tampon)
  • Deep pain during sex, often described as an internal "bumping" sensation
  • Pain with certain partners/circumstances
  • Pain only upon entry
  • Burning/stinging pain during/after sex
  • Aching during or after intercourse (similar to menstrual cramps)

Below are the most common causes for painful sex:

Vaginal dryness: This can occur for many reasons, such as changes in estrogen levels during menopause, or even from a lack of foreplay before intercourse. Certain medications can cause increased dryness (certain birth control pills, sedatives, antihistamines, antidepressants and high blood pressure medications).

Infections/inflammations: This includes urinary tract and yeast infections, both of which can be very painful, and which should be treated and cured before having sex. The cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes also can become infected or inflamed, which can cause the feeling of "deep" pain.

Skin irritations: Irritated skin in the genital area can become aggravated during sex and cause discomfort.

Allergies to birth control methods: Spermicide, latex condoms and even lubricants and scented oils can cause allergic reactions in the genital area. Always test these products before using.

Certain illnesses/medical conditions: Conditions including pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoids and ovarian cysts can contribute to pain during sex.

Prior surgeries/other treatments: Surgeries in your abdominal or pelvic area (hysterectomy, appendectomy) can cause painful intercourse if they have not fully healed. Scarring from certain surgeries can also sometimes cause pain. In addition, cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy can affect you body in ways that make sex painful.

Recent childbirth: Recent childbirth, both natural and caesarean section, can make sex painful for women.

Vaginismus: This is experienced when the muscles of the vaginal wall involuntarily contract, making penetration quite painful.

Stress/emotional factors: Stress and emotional problems can play a major role in both men and women's desire for, and ability to enjoy, sex. Tension caused by stress, or psychological trauma from a past event, can make sex difficult and painful for some women.

You should see a doctor if sexual pain is persistent or recurring. Also, if you notice something out of the ordinary that could signal an infection or STD, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible.

Next up: Bleeding between periods >>

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