Women who are undergoing IVF (in-vitro fertilization) procedures often feel less sexually satisfied and their sexual relationships with partners may suffer due to the stress of the treatments and other factors, according to researchers from Indiana University.

Until now, not much focus has been given to these couples as they try to make it through the emotionally and physically taxing process of in-vitro fertilization, even though sex is a major part of a couple’s conceiving aim to conceive a baby.

IVF is a process that involves mature eggs being taken from a female’s ovaries, which are then fertilized in a lab by sperm, which results in the production of embryos that are then implanted in a woman’s uterus. They are often used after couples have already tried other less dangerous techniques. Many couples using IVF have been trying to get pregnant for years. IVF is has become extremely popular, and around 5 million babies have been born as a result of assisted reproduction technologies.

Nicole Smith, a doctoral student with the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington who carried out the study with Jody Lyneé Madeira, associate professor in the IU Maurer School of Law said:

“Sex is for pleasure and for reproduction, but attention to pleasure often goes by the wayside for people struggling to conceive. With assisted reproduction technologies (ART), couples often report that they feel like a science experiment, as hormones are administered and sex has to be planned and times. It can become stressful and is often very unromantic and regimented; relationships are known to suffer during the process.”

Women’s hormones change dramatically during IVF treatments, which may be a reason for their change in sexual desires. A recent study said that female’s feelings toward sexual relationships change during different times in their menstrual cycle, probably because of their hormones.

The new trial, which utilized the Sexual Functioning Questionnaire, is the first in the U.S. to analyze female’s sexual experiences and the sexual health of couples going through assisted reproductive treatments.

Women who were going through IVF had less desire to have sex and were not as satisfied in their relationships as women who were not undergoing IVF treatments. The females taking part in IVF were also less likely to orgasm and reported more instances of vaginal pain and dryness. As the treatments continued, the negative problems the couples or women were experiencing increased.

The authors note that when couples who are participating in IVF treatments meet with their doctors, sex is probably not the main subject on their minds, because they are focused on more important issues or they are not comfortable talking about sex.

However, Madeira and Smith say that patient-doctor relationship is crucial and those involved in IVF processes should be told from the beginning about their risks of sexual side effects and methods to improve them. For example, if women are experiencing sexual dryness, they can be given recommendations regarding types of lubricant. Reproductive endocrinologists can also advise couples to seek mental health counseling and advise them on which sex therapists may be best for that particular couple.

Madeira continued: “There’s just a dearth of knowledge on how infertility affects sexual behavior. The focus is more likely to be on the social and support dimensions of the relationship, but sex is a big part of that. Just letting patients know they aren’t alone in this would be helpful.”

The authors say that if more information regarding sexual obstacles was obtainable, couples would probably seek it out themselves.

“Women interested in ART are generally well-educated and tend to spend time researching these issues. They would be very responsive to this information, and proactive,” said Madeira.

During the study, 270 women filled out an online survey, and 127 men and women using IVF to have a baby, as well as 70 different nurses, doctors, and mental health professionals were interviewed.

Nine women involved in the study had undergone 5 IVF cycles, which takes around a year to complete. Females who said they had engaged in sexual activity in the past month were more likely to masturbate and had less sexual issues.

Sexual function among women was the same whether they were receiving IVF for the female, male, or both. According to the report, hormone therapy used in ART probably impacts women’s pain and sexual activity, but there is not much known on these topics because they are not as important than other health issues, such as cancer or diabetes.

Written by Christine Kearney