Dyspareunia is the medical term for painful sexual intercourse, due either to disease, physical injury or psychological causes.

What is Dyspareunia?

Dyspareunia is painful sexual intercourse due to physical, psychological, undetermined causes, or a combination of causes. For example, pain during a sexual assault would not be an example of dyspareunia. Although either sex can develop dyspareunia, it is much more common in women than in men.

Common medical causes of the condition in women include infections, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and interstitial cystitis. Pain during intercourse can also be caused by ineffective sexual practices such as penetrating a woman who is not fully lubricated. While dyspareunia is rare in men, infections, some cancers, and injuries to the penis can cause the condition.

The condition can also be primarily psychological. People with a history of sexual abuse or trauma might experience sex as painful. Women who are anxious about sex tend to tense up their vaginal muscles, which can make penetration difficult and painful.

How is Dyspareunia Treated?

There are a wide variety of treatments available, and treatment primarily depends upon the cause of the condition. When there is an infection or other obvious physical cause, treatment should focus on addressing the underlying medical condition first.

Psychotherapy, including couples counseling, can be helpful for couples in which one or both members struggle with painful intercourse. Sexual practices such as using lubrication or practicing “outercourse” are often helpful for couples who crave intimacy but who struggle with painful intercourse.

Dyspareunia in Popular Culture

The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen, the author of Girl Interrupted, tells the story of the author’s years-long struggle with painful sexual intercourse. Women in particular often have difficulties getting doctors to take claims of painful intercourse seriously. The problem might be written off as a minor inconvenience or attributed solely to psychological causes. Awareness of the problem of painful intercourse is increasing, however, and there are many doctors who can sensitively and competently treat people struggling with the condition.


  1. Dyspareunia. (n.d.). Aetna Health. Retrieved from http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/9339/10950.html
  2. Kaysen, S. (2001). The camera my mother gave me. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Last Updated: 08-6-2015

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