Oct. 31, 2008 -- About four out of every 10 women experience sexual dysfunction. But of these women, only about one in four said their dysfunctions cause them significant personal distress.
So says a new study in which researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston studied 32,000 women, the largest number of participants ever for a study of this kind, the authors say.
The study, published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that 43 percent of the women reported having some sort of sexual dysfunction, although only 12 percent said that these problems affected their day-to-day lives.
In the study, 39 percent of women 18 and older reported low levels of desire, 26 percent had problems with arousal and 21 percent had difficulties with orgasm. Women older than 65 had the highest levels of sexual problems, but they also reported the least amount of distress about the issue.
But the most important finding to take away from the study is that only 12 percent of women have distressing sexual problems, according to Dr. Jan Shifren, lead study investigator and director of the Vincent Menopause Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"I think the most important finding is that the overall prevalence of women with distressing sexual problems is 12 percent," Shifren said.
"On the one hand, it's a great number because it is so much less than the number of women who report having any kind of sexual problem," she added. "But on other hand, it's still a lot of women and it's important to realize that it is truly bothering them and affecting their quality of life. So as clinicians, we really need to identify them and help."
When Sex Problems Become Dysfunction
According to the National Institutes of Health, sexual dysfunction can be classified as a lack of sexual desire, an inability to become aroused, a lack of orgasm or painful intercourse.
This latest study coincides with previous studies looking at the prevalence of sexual dysfunction among women in the United States. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February of 1999 also found that about 43 percent of women report having sexual dysfunction.
Although the number seems alarmingly high, experts say that the study actually carries more good news for women than bad.
"Actually, what the study says is that bothersome sexual dysfunction is rarer than previously thought," said Dr. Lisa Jones, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center in New Bedford, Mass.
Jones added that it's important for women to remember that what is "normal" for one person may be a serious problem for another; sexual function and dysfunction is all relative.
"Sexuality is a spectrum, and just because someone does not conform to a 'norm' doesn't mean they are abnormal unless they perceive a problem," Jones added.
The study did an excellent job of highlighting Jones' point by asking women not only whether they experienced sexual dysfunction, but also whether it bothered them enough to cause actual distress, according to Eli Coleman, academic chairman in sexual health at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
"While the prevalence rates of sexual difficulties are in line with previous studies, these authors used a measure of distress associated with sexual difficulties and found that there was a much lower prevalence of sexual dysfunction than previously thought," Coleman said. "According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, a person needs to be experiencing distress about their sexual functioning in order to qualify for being diagnosed with a particular disorder."
Sexual Dysfunction Can Be a Big Problem
But despite the silver lining of these findings, sexual health experts were quick to point out that sexual dysfunction remains a serious issue for many women, one which can even affect a woman's overall health.
Sexual dysfunction may have physical or psychological causes, according to the National Institutes of Heath. Physical causes can include chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or hormone imbalances, while psychological causes can include stress, anxiety or even past sexual trauma.
Health conditions can also play a part, particularly depression, thyroid problems, anxiety and urinary incontinence.
But whatever the cause of the dysfunction, the effects of it can exact both a physical and emotional toll.
"Sexual health is as important as physical and mental health, and oftentimes these are interwoven," Minnesota's Coleman said.
Making matters worse, many women feel uncomfortable bringing up issues of sexual dysfunction with their doctors.
"One thing that jumped out at me in this study is that they found women are reluctant to bring up sexual dysfunction and urinary incontinence with their doctor ... but there is a strong correlation between sexual dysfunction and urinary incontinence," said Dr. Lauren Streicher, clinical assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Experts say that women need to be more vocal in expressing their concerns about their sexual health to their health care providers, as sexual dysfunction is considered a legitimate health concern for many women. Moreover, doctors should be more vigilant in asking their patients whether they are having issues with sexual function that are bothersome or distressing.
"Health care professionals must inquire about sexual functioning difficulties and ask if they are experiencing distress," Coleman said. "It is important to identify these problems and offer treatment as sexual dysfunction is related to overall health, relationship satisfaction and quality of life."