Most women have no idea that taking birth control pills can cause pelvic pain and painful sex. There has been some controversy on the subject, but I am not here to argue a point. Instead, I want to share about my own experience. I know for a fact that oral contraceptives were one of the primary causes for my pain.
There is a detailed article by Dr. Andrew Goldstein on the IPPS blog which I will be referring to throughout this post. (The Dr. Oz blog also provides a good summary of the same article if you’re interested in checking it out.) What prompted this article last year was a genetic study that Dr. Goldstein and others completed which identified why some women are more susceptible to the damaging effects of birth control pills.
How birth control pills can cause pelvic pain:
Oral contraceptives signal your body (specifically your pituitary gland) to stop producing normal levels of specific hormones which support ovulation. This reduction also signals your body to reduce other hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, which are important for your sexual health. “But don’t birth control pills contain estrogen and progesterone?” you may be thinking. That’s true, but they are synthetic versions which means they don’t match your body’s natural hormones perfectly.
Compounding this lack of natural estrogen, progesterone, and other important hormones called androgens is the increase in Sex Hormone Binding Globulin, or SHBG. When the synthetic hormones in birth control pills are processed through your body (your liver, specifically), they cause an increase in your body’s production of SHBG. This is bad because SHBG attaches itself to sex hormones and makes those hormones inactive. Thus, even if you had sufficient amounts of sex hormones in your body, they are no longer working to keep you sexually healthy.
Birth control pills affected my own sexual health in a couple of ways. The first and most obvious way was by reducing my libido. I had a lot of other factors going on that made me not very interested in sex (namely the fact that it was painful). But, at a biological level I didn’t have a healthy amount of hormones to set any desire in motion. The second way was less obvious to me at the time, but had the most significant impact. The reduction in fully functioning hormones left my vestibule red, atrophied, and painful to the touch. Think about what happens to a flower petal that is no longer connected to its life-giving source of water—it wilts and shrinks, the soft surface becomes dry and fragile, and the vibrant color begins to fade. Similarly, the very part of me that was created for sexual pleasure was causing me great pain because it didn’t have the life-giving source of hormones it required to be healthy. I didn’t recognize these symptoms at the time, and neither did my doctors. It wasn’t until I saw a sexual health specialist that I learned about the importance of hormones and just how big an impact taking birth control pills had made on my sexual health. Continue reading
It is my desire that this blog reach those experiencing pelvic and sexual pain who are still searching for hope and healing. An important part of that is sharing information that is useful and understandable. I have learned a lot about myself and my body throughout my journey (though I still have a lot to learn), and sometimes I forget what is not so common knowledge. Thus, I want to stop and explain a few things that you may or may not already be familiar with. Hopefully this will help you gain a better understanding of your own body and also better understand some of my of my other blog posts where I may not take the time to fully explain specific terms. Continue reading
I was able to have sex without pain for the first time ever! I should be jumping for joy by now, right? Not exactly. Although I knew it was actually possible to have pain-free sex, this was a very rare occurrence. I like to describe it as occurring only when all the stars were aligned. In reality, I was still experiencing pain at least 90 percent of the time.
I say “when all the stars were aligned” because everything had to work perfectly in order to avoid pain. I had very low libido and if I wasn’t at the perfect arousal level before entry and remaining throughout, it would become extremely painful. The worst pain I would experience actually came on about an hour after sex. My pelvic floor muscles would basically start to spasm and I wouldn’t be able to sit, sleep, or do much of anything without experiencing severe pain. Of course the fear of bringing on this pain only added to my libido and arousal problems.
So, with the goal of increased libido in mind, my urologist referred me to an endocrinologist who did more tests. Unfortunately, she wasn’t much help since her focus was really on reproductive disorders (she diagnosed me as having Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome based on the fact that I had irregular periods even though none of her tests actually supported this*). Fortunately, my physical therapist recommended I visit a specialist in San Diego who is a leader in sexual medicine and he was able to address the missing piece in my healing puzzle.
This new specialist didn’t waste any time in setting me out on the next leg of my healing journey. He explained how important hormones are to our bodies’ health and how specifically our sexual organs are affected when they are out of balance. My testosterone levels were very low and my sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) was through the roof, resulting in extremely low free testosterone. I started on daily hormone therapy and began seeing amazing changes. I hadn’t even realized that my vestibule wasn’t supposed to be red or that my labia were half the appropriate size until everything began to heal.
Not only did my libido improve, but everything wasn’t painful to the touch anymore.
*What is especially ridiculous about this diagnosis is that many of the symptoms of PCOS are due to high levels of testosterone. Yet, my correct diagnosis that came later actually showed that my libido and arousal issues were specifically because my testosterone, especially my free testosterone, was so low!