Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin of the penis and is usually performed for cultural reasons shortly after birth in U.S males. According to the CDC, about two-thirds of male infants born in U.S. hospitals are circumcised.
The benefits of circumcision remain unclear, although some studies suggest that it may reduce the risk of penile cancer, which is a very rare disease. In addition, some research suggests that circumcised men may be at a reduced risk for developing syphilis and HIV infections. Complications can occur in up to 1 in 200 newborn males but are usually limited to mild bleeding and local infection.
"There's been a lot of controversy about whether or not circumcised men have greater or lesser sensitivity," says Clifford B. Bleustein, MD, with the department of urology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, "and this is a scientific way of trying to answer that question," he tells WebMD.
Bleustein and colleagues presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Urological Association.
To evaluate the effects of circumcision on sensitivity, the researchers used specialized instruments to test 36 circumcised and 43 uncircumcised men with or without a history of erectile dysfunction. They tested each man for level of sensitivity in the penis through vibration, pressure, and warm and cold temperatures. In uncircumcised males, the foreskin was retracted for testing.
Initially, decreased sensation was demonstrated in uncircumcised men for feeling temperature and vibration. But when they took age, hypertension, and diabetes into account, they saw no difference in the sensitivity measure between circumcised and uncircumcised men. In addition, "Our study shows that there were no differences in terms of penile sensitivity, either in men that have normal function and in those who have erectile dysfunction," says Bleustein.
They also assessed prevalence of circumcision and found that white men are 25 times more likely and black men are eight times more likely to be circumcised than are Hispanics.
Bleustein says medical organizations generally take a relatively neutral stance on whether an individual should undergo circumcision. "That's because there are risks to the operation, but there are also some potential benefits within the first year, although these benefits are somewhat controversial," he says.
"People use many reasons for or against circumcision to try to justify doing the operation or to dissuade people from doing it," he says. "But in fact, there is a paucity of very rigorous scientific information on it."
Bleustein notes that he was not sure what he was going find when it came to the effects of circumcision, but he says he is surprised that there is such a race predilection for circumcision and is unclear about why such a difference might exist.