Women with sexual dysfunction – low sexual arousal and/or sexual desire – appear to experience clinically significant symptom changes when given a placebo, according to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Female sexual dysfunction is a recurrent problem with sexual desire or response, to such an extent that the woman becomes distressed, or/and it is having an effect on her relationship with her partner.

Andrea Bradford, Ph.D., psychologist, Baylor College of Medicine, and Cindy Meston, Ph.D., the University of Texas at Austin, examined the symptoms and behaviors of 50 adult females – they were randomly selected to receive a placebo in a large trial which was investigating a medication for low sexual arousal. It was a double-blind trial – this means that neither the doctors not the women knew whether they were taking a placebo or the real medication.

The researchers report that approximately one third of the women on a placebo had a “meaningful change” in their condition after 12 weeks of treatment, with most of the improvement occurring during the first month.

The main predictor of symptom change was an increase in the number of times they experienced satisfying sexual encounters during the treatment period.

A significant number of them said they received more stimulation during sex while they took part in the trial – their partners were not given any special instructions or counseling.

Bradford said:

It’s important to note that, even though these women received placebo, they all had an opportunity to talk to a health provider about their difficulties and were asked to closely monitor their sexual behavior and feelings over a 12-week period. Just taking part in this study probably started some meaningful conversations. Our study shows that even a limited intervention can have a positive effect in many women with sexual dysfunction. This comes as no surprise to sex therapists, but it does suggest a need to investigate behavioral factors more closely in clinical trials.

Female sexual dysfunction is more common than people realize. Some women experience temporary problems, while for others the condition may persist throughout their lives. There are several causes and symptoms for female sexual dysfunction. Experts say that in most cases the condition is treatable.

Female sexual dysfunction can occur at any age during a woman’s life, but are more likely to occur when hormone levels change, such as during pregnancy or the menopause. Major illnesses are sometimes linked to sexual concerns, maybe for physical or mental reasons, or a combination of both.

According to the Mayo Clinic, USA, if a woman experiences at least one of the following and she is distressed about it, her problem(s) might be classified as female sexual dysfunction:

  • Low or absent libido (sex drive, desire to have sex)
  • Although she may want to have sex, the woman does not become aroused, or she cannot maintain arousal during sexual activity
  • The woman cannot reach orgasm
  • Sexual contact is physically painful

A number of factors, which are often interrelated, may contribute towards female sexual dysfunction. The main factors are usually physical, hormonal and psychological/social.

Physical factors may include arthritis, bowel problems, urinary problems, fatigue, persistent pain, multiple sclerosis and some other neurological disorders, taking antidepressants or medications for hypertension, some chemotherapies, and antihistamines.

Hormonal factors may include alterations in estrogen levels during the menopause which may eventually lead to physical changes in the genital region.

A woman with depression or anxiety which is untreated has a higher risk of experiencing sexual dysfunction. Some pregnant women report that the worry of becoming a parent may persist and affect their libido and their arousal during sex. Experts say that emotional distress may be a cause of sexual dysfunction as well as a result of it.

Correlates of Placebo Response in the Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction in Women: A Preliminary Report
Andrea Bradford MA, Cindy Meston PhD
Journal of Sexual Medicine DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2007.00578.x

Written by Christian Nordqvist