Persistent, recurrent problems with sexual response, desire, orgasm, or pain — that distress you or strain your relationship with your partner — are known medically as sexual dysfunction.
Many women experience problems with sexual function at some point, and some have difficulties throughout their lives. Female sexual dysfunction can occur at any stage of life. It can occur only in certain sexual situations or in all sexual situations.
Sexual response involves a complex interplay of physiology, emotions, experiences, beliefs, lifestyle, and relationships. Disruption of any component can affect sexual desire, arousal, or satisfaction, and treatment often involves more than one approach.
Symptoms vary depending on what type of sexual dysfunction you’re experiencing:
If sexual problems affect your relationship or worry you, make an appointment with your doctor for evaluation.
Sexual problems often develop when your hormones are in flux, such as after having a baby or during menopause. Major illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, or heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease, can also contribute to sexual dysfunction.
Factors — often interrelated — that contribute to sexual dissatisfaction or dysfunction include:
The vaginal lining also becomes thinner and less elastic, particularly if you’re not sexually active. These factors can lead to painful intercourse (dyspareunia). Sexual desire also decreases when hormonal levels decrease.
Your body’s hormone levels also shift after giving birth and during breastfeeding, which can lead to vaginal dryness and can affect your desire to have sex.
Long-standing conflicts with your partner — about sex or other aspects of your relationship — can diminish your sexual responsiveness as well. Cultural and religious issues and problems with body image also can contribute.
Some factors may increase your risk of sexual dysfunction:
To diagnose female sexual dysfunction, your doctor may:
Your doctor may also refer you to a counselor or therapist specializing in sexual and relationship problems.
Keep in mind that sexual dysfunction is a problem only if it bothers you. If it doesn’t bother you, there’s no need for treatment.
Because female sexual dysfunction has many possible symptoms and causes, treatment varies. It’s important for you to communicate your concerns, as well as to understand your body and its normal sexual response. Also, your goals for your sex life are important for choosing a treatment and evaluating whether or not it’s working for you.
Women with sexual concerns most often benefit from a combined treatment approach that addresses medical as well as relationship and emotional issues.
To treat sexual dysfunction, your doctor might recommend that you start with these strategies:
Effective treatment for sexual dysfunction often requires addressing an underlying medical condition or hormonal change. Your doctor may suggest changing a medication you’re taking or prescribing a new one.
Treating female sexual dysfunction linked to a hormonal cause might include:
The risks of hormone therapy may vary depending on your age, your risk of other health issues such as heart and blood vessel disease and cancer, the dose and type of hormone, and whether estrogen is given alone or with a progestin.
Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks. In some cases, hormonal therapy might require close monitoring by your doctor.
Androgen therapy for sexual dysfunction is controversial. Some studies show a benefit for women who have low testosterone levels and develop sexual dysfunction; other studies show little or no benefit.
A daily pill, Addyi may boost sex drive in women who experience low sexual desire and find it distressing. Potentially serious side effects include low blood pressure, sleepiness, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and fainting, particularly if the drug is mixed with alcohol. Experts recommend that you stop taking the drug if you don’t notice an improvement in your sex drive after eight weeks.
More research is needed before these agents might be recommended for treatment of female sexual dysfunction:
One drug, sildenafil (Revatio, Viagra), may prove beneficial for some women who have sexual dysfunction as a result of taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of drugs used to treat depression. Don’t take sildenafil if you use nitroglycerin for angina — a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.
Issues surrounding female sexual dysfunction are usually complex, so even the best medications aren’t likely to work if other emotional or social factors remain unresolved.
To boost your sexual health, find ways to be comfortable with your sexuality, improve your self-esteem and accept your body. Try practicing these healthy lifestyle habits: