Although testosterone is considered the "male" hormone, women also produce testosterone, which plays a role in a woman's sexual drive. But testosterone levels decline with menopause, a fact of life that led some researchers to suggest that replacing diminished testosterone may help women improve sexual function.
That theory makes sense to James Simon, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He tells WebMD that giving small doses of testosterone to women who have undergone hysterectomy and removal of both ovaries -- surgical menopause -- significantly improved sexual function.
Simon, who presented his findings at the 52nd Annual Clinical Meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says his study is the first large study of its kind to demonstrate that small doses of testosterone improve sexual function in these women.
The women in the study used an experimental testosterone patch twice a week, he says. The dose in this new patch is about 10 times less than the dose in the patches for men.
If a woman used a patch intended for a man, she could expect to develop severe acne, severe facial and body hair, and baldness, Simon says. Noneof these effects were seen in this study due to the low dose of testosterone used.
When Viagra, the drug used to treat erectile dysfunction in men, was approved by the FDA, the issue of male potency lost its social taboo, but women still have difficulty discussion sexual function, says Simon. "Thirty percent to 50% of women who undergo hysterectomy report decreased sexual desire, and about half of women who undergo [removal of both ovaries] report a decrease in sexual function." Likewise, studies suggest that similar numbers of postmenopausal women also experience a significant decline in sexual function.
Testosterone Patch Improves Women's Sexual Function
In the study, women who had had a hysterectomy and both ovaries removed at least six months before the study used either a 300 microgram testosterone patch twice a week or a placebo patch. The women, who were unaware of which patch they received, kept weekly diaries to record sexual activity, including arousal and orgasms.
After 24 weeks, the 283 women treated with the testosterone patch reported a 74% increase in their average sexual function, while the 279 women using the placebo patch had only a 33% increase. And the women taking testosterone reported that their sexual desire increased 56% during the study.
Gerard Nahum, MD, FACOG, associate professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., tells WebMD the testosterone study is interesting, but he is concerned that this study applies to a very select group of women. He notes that, on average, the women had surgery nine years before the study.
Aside from that caveat, Nahum, who wasn't involved in the study but was a member of the ACOG program committee, says he is encouraged by the results. He agrees that sexual dysfunction is a problem for many women, and he says it is often a problem that women have difficulty discussing, even with a doctor. But he says studies like this may encourage both women and doctors to be more open about discussing sexual function.
Nahum says the testosterone patch did significantly improve sexual function, "so this obviously warrants further study."
Simon says the patch will need FDA approval before it is available. He predicts that approval will take more than a year.