What is sexual dysfunction?
Sexual dysfunction refers to a problem during any phase of the sexual response cycle that prevents the individual or couple from experiencing satisfaction from the sexual activity.
How does sexual dysfunction affect women?
The most common problems related to sexual dysfunction in women include:
- Inhibited sexual desire: Inhibited sexual desire is a lack of sexual desire or interest in sex. Many factors can contribute to a lack of desire, including hormonal changes, medical conditions and treatments (for example cancer and chemotherapy), depression, pregnancy, stress and fatigue. Boredom with regular sexual routines also may contribute to a lack of enthusiasm for sex, as can lifestyle factors, such as careers and the care of children.
- Inability to become aroused: For women, the inability to become physically aroused during sexual activity often involves insufficient vaginal lubrication. The inability to become aroused also may be related to anxiety or inadequate stimulation. In addition, researchers are investigating how blood flow disorders affecting the vagina and clitoris may contribute to arousal problems.
- Lack of orgasm (anorgasmia): The lack of orgasm is the delay or absence of sexual climax (orgasm). It can be caused by sexual inhibition, inexperience, lack of knowledge and psychological factors such as guilt, anxiety, or a past sexual trauma or abuse. Other factors contributing to anorgasmia include insufficient stimulation, certain medications and chronic diseases.
- Painful intercourse: Pain during intercourse (dyspareunia) can be caused by a number of problems, including endometriosis, pelvic mass, ovarian cysts, inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis), poor lubrication, the presence of scar tissue from surgery and a sexually transmitted disease. A condition called vaginismus is a painful, involuntary spasm of the muscles that surround the vaginal entrance. It may occur in women who fear that penetration will be painful and also may stem from a sexual phobia or from a previous traumatic or painful experience.
How do hormones affect sexual function in women?
Hormones play an important role in regulating sexual function in women. With the decrease in the hormone estrogen that is related to aging and menopause, many women experience some changes in sexual function as they age. Poor vaginal lubrication and decreased genital sensation are problems associated with changes in estrogen levels. Further, research suggests that low levels of the hormone testosterone also contribute to a decline in sexual arousal, genital sensation and orgasm. Researchers still are investigating the benefits of hormones and other medications, including sildenafil (Viagra®), to treat sexual dysfunction in women.
How does menopause affect a woman’s sexual function?
The loss of estrogen following menopause can lead to changes in a woman’s sexual functioning. Emotional changes that often accompany menopause can add to a woman’s loss of interest in sex and/or ability to become aroused. Hormone therapy may improve certain conditions, such as loss of vaginal lubrication and genital sensation, that can create problems with sexual function.
It should be noted that some postmenopausal women report an increase in sexual satisfaction. This may be due to decreased anxiety associated with a fear of pregnancy. In addition, postmenopausal women often have fewer child-rearing responsibilities, allowing them to relax and enjoy intimacy with their partners.
What causes sexual dysfunction?
Causes of sexual dysfunction include:
- Physical causes: Many physical and/or medical conditions can cause problems with sexual function. These conditions include diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders, hormonal imbalances, menopause, chronic diseases such as kidney or liver failure, and alcoholism and drug abuse. In addition, the side effects of certain medications, including some antidepressant drugs, can affect sexual desire and function.
- Psychological causes: These include work-related stress and anxiety, concern about sexual performance, marital or relationship problems, depression, feelings of guilt, and the effects of a past sexual trauma.
What effect does a hysterectomy have on sexual function?
Some women may experience changes in sexual function after a hysterectomy. These changes may include a loss of desire, and decreased vaginal lubrication and genital sensation. These problems may be associated with the hormonal changes that occur with the loss of the uterus and ovaries. Further, nerves and blood vessels critical to sexual function can be damaged during the hysterectomy procedure. However, some women may find that a hysterectomy helps, as it can remove concerns about pain, bleeding, or pregnancy that may affect desire and sexual satisfaction.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is female sexual dysfunction diagnosed?
The doctor likely will begin with a physical exam and a thorough evaluation of symptoms. The doctor may perform a pelvic examination to evaluate the health of the reproductive organs. He or she may order other tests to rule out any medical problems that may be contributing to the dysfunction, although testing typically does not help to diagnose the cause of the concern in the vast majority of cases.
An evaluation of the person’s attitudes regarding sex, as well as other possible contributing factors (fear, anxiety, past sexual trauma/abuse, relationship problems, alcohol or drug abuse, etc.) will help the doctor understand the underlying cause of the problem and make appropriate recommendations for treatment.
Management and Treatment
How is female sexual dysfunction treated?
The ideal approach to treating female sexual dysfunction involves a team effort between the patient, healthcare providers and trained therapists. Most types of sexual dysfunction can be corrected by treating the underlying physical or psychological problems. Other treatment strategies focus on the following:
- Providing education: Education about human anatomy, sexual function and the normal changes associated with aging, as well as sexual behaviors and responses, may help a woman overcome her anxieties about sexual function and performance.
- Enhancing stimulation: This may include the use of erotic materials (sexual stimulation devices, videos or books), masturbation and changes to sexual routines.
- Providing distraction techniques: Erotic or non-erotic fantasies; exercises with intercourse; music, videos or television can be used to increase relaxation and eliminate anxiety.
- Encouraging non-coital behaviors: Non-coital behaviors (physically stimulating activity that does not include intercourse), such as sensual massage, can be used to promote comfort and increase communication between partners.
- Minimizing pain: Using sexual positions that allow the woman to control the depth of penetration may help relieve some pain. The use of vaginal lubricants can help reduce pain caused by friction, and a warm bath before intercourse can help increase relaxation.
- Medication: Flibanserin (Addyi®) is the only medication approved to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder in women. Only women who are premenopausal are candidates for treatment. Sometimes hormonal therapies are used in postmenopausal women, though hormonal therapies are not FDA approved for this purpose.
When should I call my healthcare provider if I am a woman experiencing issues with sexual function?
Many women experience a problem with sexual function from time to time. However, when the problems are persistent, they can cause distress for the woman and her partner, and have a negative impact on a relationship. If you consistently experience these problems—especially pain during intercourse—for more than a few months, see your healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition.
This document was last reviewed on: 10/01/2017