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Sexual dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction -- having a problem with sexual desire or response -- covers a wide variety of problems. In men, sexual dysfunction may refer to erectile dysfunction (ED) and premature or delayed ejaculation. For women, sexual dysfunction may include spasms of the vagina and pain with sexual intercourse. For both sexes, it can include problems with sexual desire (libido) and response.

Men over age 65 are at higher risk for ED, although ED is not a normal part of aging. Among women with sexual dysfunction, 43% say decreased sexual desire is their top complaint. The problem may be psychological, physical, or a combination of both.


Signs and Symptoms

  • Premature or delayed ejaculation in men
  • Erectile dysfunction -- not being able to get or keep an erection
  • Pain during sex
  • Lack or loss of sexual desire
  • Lower urinary tract symptoms
  • Difficulty having an orgasm
  • Vaginal dryness

What Causes It?

Sexual dysfunction can be temporary or long lasting. Causes vary and may include:

  • Being age 65 or over in men
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Taking certain prescription medications, including some antidepressants
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Drug abuse
  • Depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues
  • Stressful life events
  • Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, and sleep apnea
  • Vaginal infections
  • Injury, such as pelvic fracture

What to Expect at Your Doctor's Office

Your doctor will do a physical examination. Many times, lab tests and a physical exam may not show a cause. Your doctor may ask about your ethnic, cultural, religious, and social background, which can influence your sexual desires, expectations, and attitudes.

Your doctor may test your hormone levels, particularly levels of testosterone, which affects sex drive in both men and women.

Treatment Options

If depression is causing sexual dysfunction, antidepressants may help. Although some antidepressants may cause low libido, others may not. It may take some time for you and your doctor to find the right antidepressant for you.

Erectile dysfunction. Sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), and vardenafil (Levitra) can treat erectile dysfunction, but may have potentially serious side effects in some men. Vasodilators (drugs that dilate blood vessels, improving blood flow) may be injected into the penis. Vacuum devices may also be used. Vascular surgery or an implant in the penis may help if the problem does not get better with other treatment.

Problems related to menopause. When estrogen levels drop after menopause, women may have vaginal dryness and other changes that may make sex painful. Women who have painful intercourse after menopause may want to ask their doctors about estrogen therapy, as a vaginal ring or cream. Over-the-counter products are available as creams or gels for women who have vaginal dryness. Your doctor may also consider a testosterone patch or cream, although using testosterone for sexual dysfunction is controversial. Women who have pain with intercourse may try taking naproxen or ibuprofen before having sex.

A variety of psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal therapies may also help with sexual disorders. For example, combination therapy, including both sex therapy and medications, may work best for premature ejaculation.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Sexual dysfunction caused by decreased circulation, hormonal imbalance, depression, or anxiety may be helped by alternative therapies. Be sure to work with an experienced provider of alternative therapies and tell all of your doctors about the herbs, supplements, and medications you are taking. Many have side effects and can interact with each other. Unless noted, treatments are for both men and women.

Nutrition and Supplements
  • Vitamin C may help both men and women, as it increases blood flow. One study suggests vitamin C may increase libido in women.
  • Essential fatty acids, found in evening primrose oil, fish oil, and borage oil, help improve blood flow. Essential fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if taken with blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin. If you have a history of seizures, speak with your physician before taking a fatty acid supplement.
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone made by the body's adrenal glands, has been studied for both men and women. DHEA levels get lower as women grow older. Some studies show DHEA may help restore libido in older women, but doesn't help younger women. And some studies suggest DHEA may help some men with ED, although it does not seem to help those with diabetes or neurological problems. DHEA is sold as a supplement, but it is a powerful hormone that can change into other hormones such as estrogen and testosterone once in the body. DO NOT use DHEA without your doctor's supervision.
  • L-arginine may help men with ED, according to one study. A lower dose did not seem to work by itself. But another study suggested that adding pycnogenol to a lower dose of arginine might help ED. More research is needed. People with high blood pressure, kidney or liver disease, or who take blood thinners or diabetes medications should not take arginine. L-arginine may make herpes worse. It may interact with medications used to treat ED, such as sildenafil (Viagra), and with nitrates used to treat heart disease. People with autoimmune diseases should not take pycnogenol.
  • Propionyl-L-carnitine added to Viagra seemed to improve erections more than Viagra alone in men with diabetes and ED, according to one study. More research is needed. Propionyl-L-carnitine can increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin. Propionyl may make an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) worse and may raise the risk of seizures in people with a history of seizures.

Herbs help strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your doctor before starting treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, or teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. (5 g) herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaves or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.

Chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus). Helps your body produce hormones normally, but must be taken long term (12 to 18 months) to work. If you have a history of hormone-related cancers, speak to your doctor to make sure chaste tree is appropriate for you.

For men:

  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Increases circulation and may improve sexual function, although one study found no effect. Ginkgo may increase the effects of certain blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants). DO NOT take ginkgo if you have a history of seizures. Ask your doctor before taking ginkgo.
  • Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng). Helped men with ED improve sexual function, according to one double-blind study. People in the study took 2 weeks off after 8 weeks of treatment. Ginseng is a stimulant and may not be right for people with insomnia, autoimmune diseases, schizophrenia, heart disease, bleeding disorders, and hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast or prostate cancer. Ginseng interacts with a number of medications, including blood thinners and insulin. Ask your doctor before taking it.
  • Maca (Lepidium meyenii). May boost sexual desire in men, according to one study. Maca has been grown as a vegetable in Peru for thousands of years. However, more research is needed to see if it works for low libido and whether it is safe.
  • Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Pygeum africanum may help if your sexual problems are caused by prostate disease. DO NOT take it without your doctor's supervision.
  • Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe). Contains some yohimbine hydrochloride, a chemical found in a prescription drug used to treat ED. However, the levels vary. DO NOT take yohimbe without the supervision of your doctor. High doses are dangerous. Yohimbe interacts with several drugs and is not safe for people with certain medical conditions. Yohimbe may interact with certain antidepressant medications.

For women:

  • Arginine, ginseng, ginkgo, and damaina (Turnera diffusa). Plus certain vitamins and minerals, in a formulation called Argin-Max, showed effectiveness in one study. People with high blood pressure, kidney or liver disease, or who take blood thinners or diabetes medications should not take arginine. Ginseng is a stimulant and may not be right for people with insomnia, autoimmune diseases, schizophrenia, heart disease, bleeding disorders, and hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast or prostate cancer. Ginseng interacts with a number of medications, including blood thinners and insulin. Ask your doctor before taking ginseng or arginine.
  • Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng). Improved sexual arousal in menopausal women, according to one study. Ginseng is a stimulant and may not be right for people with insomnia, autoimmune diseases, schizophrenia, heart disease, bleeding disorders, and hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast or prostate cancer. Ginseng interacts with a number of medications, including blood thinners and insulin. Ask your doctor before taking it.
  • Yohimbe combined with arginine may increase arousal. As is true for men, you should not take yohimbe without the supervision of your doctor. Yohimbe interacts with several drugs and is not safe for people with certain medical conditions. Yohimbe may interact with antidepressant medications.
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been used for centuries to treat sexual dysfunction. Studies show that acupuncture may help specific organs, and many people use acupuncture and TCM to address hormonal imbalances.

Yoga and Meditation

Yoga and meditation can reduce the effects of stress and relieve anxiety about sexual dysfunction.


Therapeutic massage can reduce stress.

Following Up

Some sexual dysfunctions are long term and require professional care.

Special Considerations

Some drugs and herbs used for treating sexual dysfunction may have serious side effects. Marital, psychological, and sexual counseling are also important.

Supporting Research

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Chung E, Brock G. Sexual rehabilitation and cancer survivorship: a state of art review of current literature and management strategies in male sexual dysfunction among prostate cancer survivors. J Sex Med. 2013;10 Suppl 1:102-111.

Clayton A, Ramamurthy S. The impact of physical illness on sexual dysfunction. Adv Psychosom Med. 2008;29:70-88.

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Gentile V, Vicini P, Prigiotti G, et al. Preliminary observations on the use of propionyl-L-carnitine in combination with sildenafil in patients with erectile dysfunction and diabetes. Curr Med Res Opin. 2004;20:1377-1384.

Gonzales GF, Cordova A, Vega K, et al. Effect of Lepidium meyenii (MACA) on sexual desire and its absent relationship with serum testosterone levels in adult healthy men. Andrologia. 2002;34:367-372.

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Review Date: 6/2/2016  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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