Vulvar vestibulitis syndrome (vestibulitis), the most common type of chronic vulvovaginal pain, impairs the psychologic, physical, and reproductive health of approximately 10% of women at some point in their lives. Research on the pathophysiology of vestibulitis suggests abnormalities in 3 interdependent systems: vestibular mucosa, pelvic floor muscles, and central nervous system pain regulatory pathways. To date, causes and relative contributions of these abnormalities to the development and maintenance of vestibulitis remain poorly understood. Research consistently supports the conceptualization of vestibulitis as a chronic pain disorder—akin to fibromyalgia, irritable bowel disorder, and temporomandibular disorder (TMD)—that is far more complex than vestibular hypersensitivity alone. Nevertheless, the clinical diagnosis of vestibulitis continues to rely on subjective report of pain during intercourse and vestibular sensitivity on clinical examination after exclusion of other gynecologic disorders. We propose that current diagnostic criteria, which are based on highly subjective patient and clinician measures, are not sufficient to describe and properly classify the heterogeneous clinical presentations of this disorder. To inform clinical care or research, we must be able to objectively characterize women with vestibulitis. This narrative review critically appraises current conceptualization of vestibulitis and presents a context for studying vestibulitis as a chronic pain disorder, emphasizing the need for objective assessment of clinical features.
Target Audience: Obstetricians & Gynecologists, Family Physicians
Learning Objectives: After completion of this article, the reader should be able to state that vulvar vestibulitis is common; recall that the disorder has three major pathophysiological pathways and that understanding of these pathways is important in selecting treatment options, and explain that the clinician must attempt to properly classify the clinical presentations of the disorder.