Get the facts on this common problem
What is painful sex?
Painful sex refers to any form of pain during sexual activity. Some people have pain when their genitals are touched, while others only have pain from actual sexual intercourse.
Who does it happen to?
- It happens to more women than men, but it happens to men too.
- It’s very common, so you are not alone if it is a problem for you.
What causes it?
- Insufficient foreplay. It takes time for a woman to become lubricated and if your partner is shy on foreplay, this could be a significant problem.
- Thrush. Thrush is a fungal condition caused by an overgrowth of yeast in the genital region. It can be itchy and sore and happens to both men and women, though it is more common in women. Trying to have sex when you have thrush can be a painful experience.
- Chronic cystitis. Cystitis is a painful infection of the bladder and interstitial cystitis is a condition that cause frequent cystitis infections or one constant infection. It can make having sex impossible, so it's best to seek medical treatment from your GP for this condition.
- A tipped uterus. Some women have a uterus that faces backwards towards the spine rather than forwards towards the bladder. This can cause pain during sex. If this is causing problems for you, a gynaecologist can reposition the uterus.
- STIs. Many STIs can cause painful sex. So it’s important to keep yourself protected and to go to your local GUM clinic if you have any STI symptoms.
- A tight foreskin. If your foreskin is too tight, this can cause significant pain. This problem can be rectified with a simple surgery.
- Forgotten tampons or diaphragms. This sounds pretty bizarre, but one of the most common causes of painful sex is a forgotten tampon or diaphragm in the vagina. Tampons in particular can be totally forgotten about, as they are pretty small. You can remove the tampon yourself at home, but it is best to visit your doctor to check if the forgotten tampon has caused an infection, for which you may need treatment.
- Vaginismus. This is a condition whereby the vagina muscles close up, either partly or completely. Even if you can manage to have sex with vaginismus, it can be very painful. Your doctor can discuss treatment options with you.
- Surgery. Any surgery in the genital region, even for something simple, can end up causing pain. It is important to contact your doctor if you develop pain after surgery.
- Size matters. If your partner is well endowed, sex may be painful for you. Couples usually need to experiment with different positions in this situation.
- Ovarian cysts. Ovarian cysts are small fluid filled cysts that develop in the ovary. They can cause general pain and swelling and can make sex painful also.
- During anal sex, the receptive partner may experience pain if not enough lubrication is used, or if they are struggling to relax. This may take some time and experimentation to get used to, but don't feel pressured into continuing to have anal sex if it is painful or unpleasurable for you.
What you can do
- Increase the length of foreplay. Sometimes sex is only painful because you are not sufficiently aroused and thus lubricated. Increasing foreplay can solve this problem.
- Use lubricants. If you’re aroused, but still feel a bit dry, a lubricant can help a lot. There are tons of lubricants around and you can buy them at supermarkets, chemists and even at reputable online shops.
- Get a medical check-up. You may find it mortifying but doctors deal with these issues every day. In fact, painful sex is one of the most common issues that gynaecologists deal with. If you don’t want to go to your GP asking for a referral to a gynaecologist, your local GUM or Family Planning clinic can help. They can refer you to a sex therapist if you feel that there are psychological issues interfering with sex and they can also prescribe creams or medicines or recommend exercises.
- Think sensual rather than sexual. If sex is painful, many sex therapists and doctors recommend that couples take part in sensual activities instead, such as bathing together and massaging one another. Oral sex or mutual masturbation is also less likely to cause pain than actual intercourse.
- Try different positions. Some positions can cause pain, while others don’t cause pain at all.
- Don’t grin and bear it. Sex is supposed to be loving, fun and enjoyable and you shouldn’t do anything that hurts.
Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.