I've had vulvodynia since I was 12. I'm now 34 and still have it. I've tried steroids, anti-depressants of varying varieties, long-term anti-thrush treatment, antibiotics, kegel exercises, natural yoghurt douches, vitamin therapy, aromatherapy, homeopathy and lidocaine gels. The only things that have made any difference to my condition are tea tree cream (which gets rid of the chronic itching temporarily) and lidocaine to numb me.
I got so fed up and tearful with the constant burning and thrush like symptoms that literally felt like I had an infection for years, that I fantasized about having an operation to remove the offending parts of my genitalia. Cut it out, I thought. I really hated being a woman because of it.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, my specialist wasn't that keen on the idea and said that many operations failed to work or made things worse by causing scar tissue problems. I was getting so desperate I wanted to take the knife and do it myself, so imagine my surprise when the doctor, a gnaecological oncologist who spent his career doing conventional treatments for cancer, suggested to me that I try acupuncture.
He told me that some vulvodynia patients had improved greatly after acupuncture and they'd even had some total recoveries. Not only that, but the NHS (National Health Service in the UK) would pay for it.
So that was how I found myself in a hospital waiting room, waiting for an ancient Chinese medicine.
I thought the hospital would have employed some alternative therapists. My friend, who was a reflexologist and massage therapist had been employed to give massages to the doctors so I thought it might be a similar situation here. But no, the acupuncturists were professional nurses who had been trained in how to do acupuncture.
I was a little skeptical, both because they hadn't done the three year degree course required of acupuncturists and also because I had vulvodynia for 22 years and didn't really believe anyone could cure it, naturally or otherwise.
One of the nurses, Andrew, sensed my disbelief.
"I never stick a needle in anyone without thinking it will work", he said confidently, "Most of my patients have an improvement afterwards."
He asked me to explain what I thought acupuncture was, so I told him that in basic terms I understood that the body had energy lines known as meridian lines and that if they got blocked, an illness would occur and that the ancient Chinese believed that by sticking needles in people at the varying energy points they would unblock the person and cure the illness.
"Yes", said Andrew, "Execept that the NHS don't believe in meridian lines."
What? I thought, you are practicing acupuncture and you don't believe in meridian lines? How did he expect it to work? I was privately thinking of the articles I wrote for Empowher about how acupuncture cures post chemotherapy sickness and I wondered how doctors thought it worked, if not in the way traditional acupuncturists teach.
He said that the needles stimulated the body's production of endorphins, a natural painkiller, and that they also blocked nerve fibers, altering feeling and possibly correcting pain disorders. It struck me as a very 'conventional' way to thing, like using acetaminophen to stop pain by blocking the body's signals. Holistic therapy usually works with the body to correct an imbalance.
Still, I reminded myself it was a miracle that a nurse was doing acupuncture at all.
A female nurse came in after I was gowned up and proceeded to stick 13 fine needles into me at various points on my back, stomach and lower legs. All were painless except for one on my lower leg that really hurt and more than some blood tests I have had.
"Sorry", she said, "People always jump at that one, the lower leg one corresponds with the vulva."
"Does it?", I asked, fascinated.
My little four year old son was flinching and told me that putting needles in myself was stupid and he ordered me to take them out. Trying to explain meridian lines to a four year old was challenging!
Then the nurse left me to lie still on the bed and put relaxing music on for me. It seemed really strange to be lying in a sterile, bare hospital room listening to mediation music and the sound of waterfalls.
They warned me I might feel very tired and when I got home, I fell asleep for two hours in the middle of the afternoon. The other amazing thing that happened was, my vulval pain almost disappeared for a few hours. Even when I pressed on it to see if it would hurt, it didn't, and that never happens without lidocaine.
Of course, it's back this morning, as bad as ever, but that temporary lull in pain has given me hope that maybe I do have some hope of recovery over the next five sessions.
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