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Nearly one in 10 British women experience painful sex linked to poorer sexual, physical and mental health

News 25 January 2017

Nearly one in 10 of British women are experiencing painful sex (dyspareunia), according to a new study published today (25 January) in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG).

The findings come from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) which is the largest scientific study of sexual health lifestyles in Britain. It was carried out by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University College London and NatCen Social Research.

The national survey examined 8,869 women aged between 16-74 from 2010 to 2012. Among the 6,669 who had been sexually active in the past year, 7.5% reported having painful sex; of those, 1.9% experienced morbid pain (symptoms lasting at least six months and occurring very often or always and leaving the woman feeling distressed). The proportion who reported painful sex was highest in women aged 55-64 (10.4%) and those 16-24 (9.5%). Of the 1,708 women in the study who were not sexually active, 2.05% said they avoided intercourse due to painful sex or a fear of feeling pain.

Results found that painful sex was strongly associated with other sexual function problems, in particular vaginal dryness, feeling anxious during sex, and lack of enjoyment in sex. It was also linked to poor physical and mental health including depression, sexual relationship factors, such as not sharing the same level of interest in sex, and adverse experiences, such as an STI diagnosis and non-volitional sex.

Of those who reported painful sex, 30.9% said they were dissatisfied with their sex life compared to 10.1% of women who didn’t report painful sex, while those experiencing pain were more likely to say they had avoided sex in the past year because of sexually difficulties (44.9% versus 10.7%).

Dr Kirstin Mitchell, lead author who began her research at the London School of Hygience & Tropical Medicine and is now based at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, said:

“While dyspareunia is a common problem, sexual pain disorders are often overlooked because underlying conditions are often difficult to diagnose and treat, and causes can be complex and poorly understood.

“This data demonstrates the importance of taking a holistic approach to medical care which takes into account the sexual, relationship and health context of symptoms. Healthcare professionals should be supported in taking a detailed history during a patient’s clinical assessment; thoroughly investigating symptoms, asking about enjoyment and satisfaction, and considering the relationship context.

“There is also a need for resources to support clinicians who feel uncomfortable broaching the topic of sexual function and pleasure with patients, including advice on language and on when to refer patients to specialists in sexual health.”

Mr Edward Morris, Vice President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said:

“This study raises the need for increased awareness that sex is more likely to be painful at the extremes of reproductive life (ie. in young women and those who have gone through the menopause). It also reveals an association between painful sex and women wanting to have known more at first sexual experience. Given that painful sex is common in younger women, and that half of young women report their first experience of intercourse as painful, it would be beneficial to ensure that the possibility of pain is discussed openly in sex education and in consultations between young people and health professionals.

“It is important that women who experience recurrent painful sex speak to their doctor or healthcare professional.”

Patrick Chien, Editor-in-chief of BJOG added:

“This study is rare in simultaneously exploring associations between dyspareunia and sexual functioning of the relationship, previous sexual history, attitudes towards sex and general health. In doing so, it has addressed a gap in the understanding of the social and relationship patterning of painful sex.

“These findings are important and relevant to the work of a range of healthcare professionals involved in general practice, gynaecology, oncology, psychosexual therapy, and more broadly in therapeutic settings.”

Ends

For media enquiries or copies of the study please contact the RCOG press office on 020 7772 6357 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk. We also have an anonymous case study available.

Notes to editors:

Mitchell KR, Geary R, Graham CA, Datta J, Wellings K, Sonnenberg P, Field N, Nunns D, Bancroft J, Jones KG, and Mercer CH. Painful sex (dyspareunia) in women: Prevalence and associated factors in a British population probability survey. BJOG 2017: DOI: 10.1111/1471-0528.14518

The article can be found here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/1471-0528.14518/full

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust with additional funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of Health. The MRC/Chief Scientist Office (CSO) Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow is funded by the MRC and the Scottish Government CSO.

BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology is owned by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) but is editorially independent and published monthly by Wiley. The journal features original, peer-reviewed, high-quality medical research in all areas of obstetrics and gynaecology worldwide. Please quote ‘BJOG’ or ‘BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology’ when referring to the journal. To keep up to date with our latest papers, follow @BJOGTweets.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is a medical charity that champions the provision of high quality women’s healthcare in the UK and beyond. It is dedicated to encouraging the study and advancing the science and practice of obstetrics and gynaecology. It does this through postgraduate medical education and training and the publication of clinical guidelines and reports on aspects of the specialty and service provision.