For women struggling with a female penetration problem, they may come across the terms vaginismus, dyspareunia, and genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder (GPPPD) in their research. They might wonder if these terms refer to the same condition, or if not, how they are related to one another.
The names and classifications of conditions change periodically in medical fields. The most recent edition of the DSM-5* changed some of the sexual dysfunction definitions and no longer includes a specific definition for vaginismus. In fact, the term vaginismus does not appear at all. Instead, the equivalant condition is listed under a more general classification of sexual pain disorders—dyspareunia—and referred to as genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder (GPPPD).
While the introduction of this general terminology to describe female penetration issues provides an update that was years in the making, grouping together multiple individual female sexual pain problems under a common, general term is problematic. Lack of specificity complicates both diagnosis and treatment protocols for patients, particularly in the way we talk about these issues. It is more accurate to say that vaginismus is a subset or type of GPPPD, though this is not stated in the DSM-5.
Change filters slowly, both inside and outside medical and academic communities, resulting in long-term perseverance of old terminology. It’s likely that usage of the term vaginismus will persist indefinitely, both in online resources and by health professionals, to refer to specific female penetration problems.
For these reasons, it is helpful to be familiar with the terms vaginismus, dyspareunia, and genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder in researching and educating yourself about what might be causing your penetration issues and in communicating with your physician. We will continue using the term vaginismus as it is specific, helpful, and in common use among medical professionals.
What is dyspareunia? What is the connection between dyspareunia and vaginismus?
Dyspareunia [dis-puh-roo-nee-uh] is a medical term that simply means “painful intercourse.” The name is used to generally describe all types of sexual pain, including pain upon penetration, during intercourse, and/or following it. Pain could manifest anywhere in the genital area—the clitoris, labia, or vagina, etc.—and be described as sharp, stinging, burning, bumping, or cramping in the private area.
While vaginismus is simply one of several possible causes of sexual pain (dyspareunia), pain arising from other conditions can actually trigger vaginismus. Vaginismus is uniquely characterized by involuntary tightness of the vagina due to a limbic system response toward potential or attempted vaginal penetration.
*The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a diagnostic guide used by medical, mental health, and academic communities.