Jillian Currie, 28, a PT-in-training from Buckinghamshire, suffers from a chronic condition that means that tearing of her vulval skin could occur from activities as gentle as walking. She believes she has Sjögren’s Syndrome, but adaptations have made exercise possible–and a change in lifestyle appears to be helping to soothe her symptoms.
From the age of 22 to 26, I battled with seriously debilitating vulval issues. I experienced pain, throbbing and burning sensations, irritated skin, and permanent dryness.
I also suffered with IBS, which manifested as bloating, cramping and constipation, as well as nausea and anxiety. The biggest problem though, is that my vulval skin is extremely thin and prone to tearing. In fact, I usually tear during sex, which, as you can imagine, has been incredibly challenging to deal with.
I’ve not yet been diagnosed, but I believe I have Sjögren’s Syndrome (an autoimmune condition that causes extreme dryness across the body). I do know I have vulvodynia (chronic vulval pain), vaginismus (in which the vaginal muscles tighten up and spasm when you try to insert something into the vagina), and an atrophic (dry) vagina, which, along with IBS, are all signs of Sjogrens, so I’m hoping this will be confirmed by a doctor, soon.
If you are dealing with any of the symptoms mentioned, book in to see your GP. Specialised creams and moisturisers can help with vaginal dryness, so seek help.
I was also diagnosed with GAD (general anxiety disorder) when I was 17, which definitely contributes to my vaginal issues, since I hold so much tension in my body.
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All of this means exercise was once very hard. Tight-fitting workout clothes would hurt, and obviously, movement can create friction, so I’d be in agony during and after. I don’t just mean sweaty, vigorous activity, either–while walking, my vulva felt like it was on fire, like I was being inflicted with small razor cuts.
That wasn’t all that put me off either – I’m naturally very petite, so I didn’t want to exercise in case I lost weight. It was only during lockdown, when I was 26, that I began to make changes.
I was incredibly worried about contracting Covid, so I decided to work on my fitness and overall health. I exercised daily (Pamela Reif’s YouTube classes were my go-to, they’re all free and no equipment is needed), but a lot of interventions – that I still swear by – were neccessary: cotton underwear, a barrier cream around my pantyline, moisturising my vulva with coconut oil, and immediately soaking in a bath of Epsom salts afterwards.
Always do a patch test on your skin before applying a new substance, such as coconut oil. Dab a small amount on your forearm, wait 24 hours, and check that your skin does not react.
This worked, and I stuck to home workouts in my living room, where I felt comfortable to wear big pants and take it at my own pace.
This quickly began to pay off. I couldn’t even last 10 minutes without stopping, at first, but now I can smash out 45 minutes and go to the gym four days a week (I dedicate each to strength training a specific body part, rest for two days and run on the other).
After about three months of daily movement, I noticed my vulval pain and IBS symptoms had lessened. The key is, I’ve realised, to listen to my body – I believe that the endorphins I get from exercise reduce my pain and anxiety which, in turn, means fewer physical symptoms. Plus, when I’m moving, I know when to slow down, so I don’t overdo it.
If you’re dealing with any sort of chronic vulval condition, speak to your GP or medical professional about any proposed lifestyle changes, so they can be managed, safely. Specialised creams can be offered, to help with symptoms.
A better diet has, I think, also played a part – I used to eat a lot of sugar and crisps, but now focus on whole foods. Now, a standard day might look like this:
- Breakfast: an avocado bagel
- Lunch: salmon, rice and veg
- Dinner: chicken with veg and wedges
My goal is to get as strong as I can, and to help other women like me. After years of being judged for ‘not eating enough’ with my naturally petite frame, I lost confidence, but I’ve found the sense of accomplishment through strength training helps that.
I’m training to become a PT, too, and devote my spare time to raising awareness around gynae-based conditions on my Instagram page @queensofeve. I want others to experience the joy that I get from exercise, even when adaptations are needed.
The expert view on Sjögren’s Syndrome
WH spoke to Dr Shazia Malik, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital, for the facts on this little-known condition.
‘Sjögren’s Syndrome is a condition that affects parts of the body that produce fluids, such as tears and saliva. It affects approximately 0.6% of adults in the UK, with a mean age of 50 years. 90% of patients are women,’ Dr Malik tells us. As to symptoms?
‘The condition usually starts in people aged between 40 to 60 years old and is much more common in women than it is men. In women, the glands that keep the vagina moist can be affected, leading to vaginal dryness and the associated impacts of this.’
How might Sjögren’s syndrome cause vulval tearing?
‘Although uncommon, gynaecological impacts of Sjögren’s Syndrome are an often-overlooked part of the condition,’ Dr Malik explains.
‘Women with the condition may experience vaginal burning or itching, pain with intercourse and exercise, and vaginal spotting or discharge. The main issue is dryness due to the glands which usually moisturise the vaginal lining being affected.
This can cause tears. As the disease often manifests around the time of the menopause, when vaginal atrophy due to a lack of oestrogen can already become an issue, it can really exacerbate those symptoms further in the women affected by it.
‘However, these symptoms may also stem from other more common causes – such as:
- Vaginal infections
- Vaginal dermatoses
- Localised reactions to soaps, detergents, lubricants, or sanitary products
‘Therefore, it is important that women with these symptoms seek medical advice as it could indicate other conditions.’
How can Sjögren’s Syndrome be treated?
‘There is no known cure for Sjögren’s Syndrome, but there are ways to alleviate symptoms,’ Dr Malik says. ‘The treatment of vaginal dryness in the context of Sjögren’s Syndrome includes the use of vaginal moisturisers, water soluble lubricants during sexual activity, and vaginal oestrogen creams. General advice for vaginal health applies here even more than usual, for example:
‘Avoid perfumed soaps and gels: The vagina has a mechanism of automatically cleaning itself via natural secretions. Do not use perfumed soaps, gels, douches, and antiseptics to clean your vagina as these can impact the number of healthy vaginal bacteria and affect pH levels, resulting in dryness.
‘Try vaginal moisturisers and lubricants: Vaginal moisturising products help to replenish natural moisture and relieve discomfort. Vaginal lubricants can also make intercourse more comfortable for you by relieving the friction you might experience if you have vaginal dryness.
But vaginal lubricants do not add moisture to the vagina and are not useful for everyday moisturising. Look for a water-based lubricant instead of an oil-based lubricant, which can interfere with the vagina’s natural cleansing process.’
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