December 20, 2017

Time to talk about female sexual dysfunction


Female sexual dysfunction is pretty common, but there are treatments to address the problems.

Many women have a common approach to their own sexual problems: They don’t talk about them, let alone seek help.

It makes Laurie Tompkins, MSN, sigh with frustration. “There are things that we just don’t discuss, and having sexual dysfunction is one of them,” Tompkins said.

Tompkins is an advanced practice registered nurse and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology with the Vanderbilt Center for Women’s Health. And she’s working to let women know that it is healthy to talk about their sexual health and any problems that they might be experiencing.

“It’s really important that women know that there are things that we can do for women’s sexual dysfunction,” Tompkins said. “I think a lot of women don’t even know that there are treatment options out there, and we do have good treatment options available.”

Taboo topic?

It might be a Southern thing, avoiding discussions about sex and sexual health. Or it might be a broader cultural thing.

After all, commercials for erectile dysfunction treatment for men air during prime-time television. But you don’t see commercials for treatment for women’s sexual dysfunction air during the 8 p.m. hour. And women don’t seem to bring up the topic of sexual pain or low libido during a book club meeting or coffee hour.

They may not realize it, but female sexual dysfunction is actually pretty common. Estimates vary, but some experts believe that about one third of women in the U.S. have a low libido (or sex drive). And the numbers may be even higher than that. Plus, that doesn’t even take into account other types of female sexual dysfunction, which include sexual arousal disorder, orgasmic disorder, and pain during sexual contact or stimulation.

“Any woman can be affected by it,” Tompkins said. “It can happen at various stages across the lifespan, too. It’s not uncommon for it to happen after you have a baby, for example.”

If you’re experiencing pain during sex or a lack of desire to have sex or other problems, it’s important to talk about it—to discuss the issue with your doctor or your nurse practitioner. The problem may be relatively simple, or it could be more complex. But these are real problems, Tompkins emphasized, and there are steps that you can take together to determine the cause and then potentially address the problem.

Causes of female sexual dysfunction

There are three main female sexual dysfunction causes, according to the Hormone Health Network:

  • Physical causes, which can include health problems like heart disease or diabetes, endometriosis or other gynecological problems, nerve damage, or side effects from medications such as antidepressants, oral contraceptives or blood pressure treatments;
  • Hormonal causes, which may include a drop in estrogen or a drop in testosterone;
  • Psychological/emotional causes, which may include stress, anxiety, relationship problems, depression, or religious or cultural beliefs about sex.

And for many women, their issue may have multiple factors at work. That can make treatment more challenging, but again, Tompkins said, treatment for female sexual dysfunction is available and worth trying.

“Don’t quit before you try some interventions,” said Tompkins. “Don’t give up.”

Female sexual dysfunction treatment options

Possible treatment options for female sexual dysfunction can include counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy; lifestyle changes such as weight loss or smoking cessation; prescription estrogen treatment; vaginal moisturizers and lubricants; short-term testosterone therapy; and a prescription device called Eros that increase blood flow to the genitals. There’s also a drug called Addyi that is specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for low sexual desire in women. And in some cases, treatment may be as simple as switching from a medication with sexual side effects to one that won’t put a damper on your sexual desire or response.

Your sexual health is an important part of your overall health and well-being, Tompkins said, so don’t brush it off.

“If you don’t talk about it, and your provider doesn’t ask, you could go for years with something that could be treated,” said Tompkins. “And it can affect the quality of your whole life.”

Need help?

Vanderbilt Women’s Health provides care for women at all stages of their lives at locations across Middle Tennessee. Learn more here or call 615-343-5700.