Sexual problems overview
Sexual problems are defined as difficulty during any stage (desire, arousal, orgasm, and resolution) of the sexual act, which prevents the individual or couple from enjoying sexual activity.
Sexual difficulties may begin early in a person's life, or they may develop after an individual has previously experienced enjoyable and satisfying sex. A problem may develop gradually over time, or may occur suddenly as a total or partial inability to participate in one or more stages of the sexual act. The causes of sexual difficulties can be physical, psychological, or both.
Emotional factors affecting sex include both interpersonal problems and psychological problems within the individual. Interpersonal problems include marital or relationship problems, or lack of trust and open communication between partners. Personal psychological problems include depression, sexual fears or guilt, or past sexual trauma.
Physical factors contributing to sexual problems include:
- Injuries to the back
- An enlarged prostate gland
- Disease (diabetic neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, tumors, and, rarely, tertiary syphilis)
- Drugs, such as alcohol, nicotine, narcotics, stimulants, antihypertensives (medicines that lower blood pressure), antihistamines, and some psychotherapeutic drugs (used to treat psychological problems such as depression)
- Endocrine disorders (thyroid, pituitary, or adrenal gland problems)
- Failure of various organs (such as the heart and lungs)
- Hormonal deficiencies (low testosterone, estrogen, or androgens)
- Nerve damage (as in spinal cord injuries)
- Problems with blood supply
- Some birth defects
Sexual dysfunction disorders are generally classified into four categories: sexual desire disorders, sexual arousal disorders, orgasm disorders, and sexual pain disorders.
Sexual desire disorders (decreased libido) may be caused by a decrease in the normal production of estrogen (in women) or testosterone (in both men and women). Other causes may be aging, fatigue, pregnancy, and medications -- the SSRI antidepressants which include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil) are well known for reducing desire in both men and women. Psychiatric conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can also cause decreased libido.
Sexual arousal disorders were previously known as frigidity in women and impotence in men. These have now been replaced with less judgmental terms. Impotence is now known as erectile dysfunction, and frigidity is now described as any of several specific problems with desire, arousal, or anxiety.
For both men and women, these conditions may appear as an aversion to, and avoidance of, sexual contact with a partner. In men, there may be partial or complete failure to attain or maintain an erection, or a lack of sexual excitement and pleasure in sexual activity.
There may be medical causes for these disorders, such as decreased blood flow or lack of vaginal lubrication. Chronic disease may also contribute to these difficulties, as well as the nature of the relationship between partners. As the success of Viagra attests, many erectile disorders in men may be primarily physical, not psychological conditions.
Orgasm disorders are a persistent delay or absence of orgasm following a normal sexual excitement phase. The disorder occurs in both women and men. Again, the SSRI antidepressants are frequent culprits -- these may delay the achievement of orgasm or eliminate it entirely.
Sexual pain disorders affect women almost exclusively, and are known as dyspareunia (painful intercourse) and vaginismus (an involuntary spasm of the muscles of the vaginal wall, which interferes with intercourse). Dyspareunia may be caused by insufficient lubrication (vaginal dryness) in women. There may also be abnormalities in the pelvis or the ovaries that can cause pain with intercourse. Vulvar pain disorders can also cause dyspareunia and inability to have intercourse due to pain.
Poor lubrication may result from insufficient excitement and stimulation, or from hormonal changes caused by menopause or breast-feeding. Irritation from contraceptive creams and foams may also cause dryness, as can fear and anxiety about sex.
It is unclear exactly what causes vaginismus, but it is thought that past sexual trauma such as rape or abuse may play a role. Another female sexual pain disorder is called vulvodynia or vulvar vestibulitis. In this condition, women experience burning pain during sex which may be related to problems with the skin in the vulvar and vaginal areas. The cause is unknown.
Sexual dysfunctions are most common in the early adult years, with the majority of people seeking care for such conditions during their late 20s through 30s. The incidence increases again in the perimenopause and postmenopause years in women, and in the geriatric population, typically with gradual onset of symptoms that are associated most commonly with medical causes of sexual dysfunction.
Sexual dysfunction is more common in people who abuse alcohol and drugs. It is also more likely in people suffering from diabetes and degenerative neurological disorders. Ongoing psychological problems, difficulty maintaining relationships, or chronic disharmony with the current sexual partner may also interfere with sexual function.
Open, informative, and accurate communication regarding sexual issues and body image between parents and their children may prevent children from developing anxiety or guilt about sex, and may help them develop healthy sexual relationships.
Review all medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, for possible side effects that relate to sexual dysfunction. Avoiding drug and alcohol abuse will also help prevent sexual dysfunction.
Couples who are open and honest about their sexual preferences and feelings are more likely to avoid some sexual dysfunction. One partner should, ideally, be able to communicate desires and preferences to the other partner.
People who are victims of sexual trauma, such as sexual abuse or rape at any age, are urged to seek psychiatric advice. Individual counseling with an expert in trauma may prove beneficial in allowing sexual abuse victims to overcome sexual difficulties and enjoy voluntary sexual experiences with a chosen partner.
- Men or women:
- Inability to feel aroused
- Lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
- Pain with intercourse (much less common in men than women)
- Men :
- Delay or absence of ejaculation, despite adequate stimulation
- Inability to control timing of ejaculation
- Inability to get an erection
- Inability to keep an erection adequately for intercourse
- Burning pain on the vulva or in the vagina with contact to those areas
- Inability to reach orgasm
- Inability to relax vaginal muscles enough to allow intercourse
- Inadequate vaginal lubrication before and during intercourse
- Low libido due to physical/hormonal problems, psychological problems, or relationship problems
CALL YOUR HEALTH CARE PROVIDER IF...
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if sexual problems persist and are a concern.
SIGNS AND TESTS
The health care provider will investigate any physical problems and conduct tests based on the particular type of sexual dysfunction you're experiencing. In any case, a complete medical history should be taken and physical examination should be done to:
- Highlight possible fears, anxieties, or guilt specific to sexual behaviors or performance
- Identify predisposing illness or conditions
- Uncover any history of prior sexual trauma
A physical examination of both the partners should include the whole body and not be limited to the reproductive system.
Treatment depends on the cause of the sexual dysfunction. Medical causes that are reversible or treatable are usually managed medically or surgically. Physical therapy and mechanical aides may prove helpful for some people experiencing sexual dysfunction due to physical illnesses or disabilities.
Sildenafil (Viagra) may be helpful for men who have difficulty attaining an erection. The medication increases blood flow to the penis. It must be taken 1 to 4 hours before intercourse. Men who take nitrates for coronary heart disease should not take sildenafil.
Mechanical aids and penile implants are an option for men who cannot attain an erection and find sildenafil is not helpful.
Women with vaginal dryness may be helped with lubricating gels, hormone creams, and -- in cases of premenopausal or menopausal women -- with hormone replacement therapy. In some cases, women with androgen deficiency can be helped by taking testosterone. Kegel exercises may also increase blood flow to the vulvar/vaginal tissues, as well as strengthen the muscles involved in orgasm.
Vulvodynia can be treated with numbing cream, biofeedback, or low doses of certain antidepressants that also treat nerve pain. Surgery has not been successful.
Behavioral treatments involve many different techniques to treat problems associated with orgasm and sexual arousal disorders. Self-stimulation and the Masters and Johnson treatment strategies are among the many behavioral therapies used.
Simple, open, accurate, and supportive education about sex and sexual behaviors or responses may be all that is required in many cases. Some couples may benefit from joint counseling to address interpersonal issues and communication styles. Psychotherapy may be required to address anxieties, fears, inhibitions, or poor body image.
PROGNOSIS AND OUTCOME
The prognosis (probable outcome) depends on the form of sexual dysfunction. In general, the probable outcome is good for physical dysfunctions resulting from treatable or reversible conditions. It should be noted, however, that many organic causes do not respond to medical or surgical treatments. Prolonged physical dysfunction can also create sexual dysfunction.
In functional sexual problems resulting from either relationship problems or psychological factors, the prognosis may be good for temporary or mild dysfunction associated with temporary stress or lack of accurate information. However, those cases associated with chronically poor relationships or deep-seated psychiatric problems typically do not have positive outcomes.
Some forms of sexual dysfunction may cause infertility.
Persistent sexual dysfunction may cause depression in some individuals. The importance of the disorder to the individual (and couple, when applicable) needs to be determined. Decreased sexual function is important only if it is a cause of concern for the couple. Sexual dysfunction that is not addressed adequately may lead to conflicts or potential breakups.
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Shafer LC. Sexual disorders and sexual dysfunction. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Biederman J, Rauch SL, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 36.
Clayton AH, Hamilton DV. Female sexual dysfunction. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010;33:323-338.
Heidelbaugh JJ. Management of erectile dysfunction. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81:305-312.
Lentz GM. Emotional aspects of gynecology: sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, grief, loss. In: Katz VL, Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007:chap 9.
Lue TF, Broderick GA. Evaluation and nonsurgical management of erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. In: Wein AJ, ed. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 22.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Redmond, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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