A sexual problem, or sexual dysfunction, refers to a problem during any phase of the sexual response cycle that prevents the individual or couple from experiencing satisfaction from the sexual activity. The sexual response cycle has four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.
While research suggests that sexual dysfunction is common (43% of women and 31% of men report some degree of difficulty), it is a topic that many people are hesitant to discuss. Fortunately, most cases of sexual dysfunction are treatable, so it is important to share your concerns with your partner and doctor.
What Causes Sexual Problems?
Sexual dysfunction can be a result of a physical or psychological condition.
- Physical causes: Many physical and/or medical conditions can cause problems with sexual function. These conditions include diabetes, heart and vascular (blood vessel) disease, neurological disorders, hormonal imbalances, chronic diseases such as kidney or liver failure, and alcoholism and drug abuse. In addition, the side effects of certain medications, including some antidepressant drugs, can affect sexual desire and function.
- Psychological causes: These include work-related stress and anxiety, concern about sexual performance, marital or relationship problems, depression, feelings of guilt, and the effects of a past sexual trauma.
Who Is Affected by Sexual Problems?
Both men and women are affected by sexual problems. They can occur in adults of all ages. Among those commonly affected are seniors, which may be related to a decline in health associated with aging.
How Do Sexual Problems Affect Men?
The most common sexual problems in men are ejaculation disorders, erectile dysfunction, and inhibited sexual desire.
What Are Ejaculation Disorders?
There are different types of ejaculation disorders, including:
- Premature ejaculation. This refers to ejaculation that occurs before or very soon after penetration.
- Inhibited or retarded ejaculation. This is when ejaculation is slow to occur.
- Retrograde ejaculation. This occurs when, at orgasm, the ejaculate is forced back into the bladder rather than through the urethra and out the end of the penis.
Premature ejaculation, the most common form of sexual dysfunction in men, often is due to nervousness over how well they will perform during sex. But causes are often unclear. In some cases, premature and inhibited ejaculation are caused by a lack of attraction for a partner, past traumatic events, and psychological factors, including a strict religious background that causes the person to view sex as sinful. Certain drugs, including some antidepressants, may affect ejaculation, as can nerve damage to the spinal cord or back.
Retrograde ejaculation is common in males with diabetes who suffer from diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage). This is due to problems with the nerves in the bladder and the bladder neck that allow the ejaculate to flow backward and into the bladder. In other men, retrograde ejaculation occurs after operations on the bladder neck or prostate, or after certain abdominal operations. In addition, certain medications, particularly those used to treat mood disorders, may cause problems with ejaculation. This generally does not require treatment unless it impairs fertility.
What Is Erectile Dysfunction?
Also known as impotence or ED, erectile dysfunction is defined as the inability to attain and/or maintain an erection suitable for intercourse. Causes of erectile dysfunction include diseases affecting blood flow, such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries); nerve disorders; psychological factors, such as stress, depression, and performance anxiety (nervousness over their ability to sexually perform); and injury to the penis. Chronic illness, certain medications, and a condition called Peyronie's disease (scar tissue in the penis) can also cause erectile dysfunction.
What Is Inhibited Sexual Desire?
Inhibited desire, or loss of libido, refers to a decrease in desire for, or interest in sexual activity. Reduced libido can result from physical or psychological factors. It has been associated with low levels of the hormone testosterone. It also may be caused by psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression; medical illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure; certain medications, including some antidepressants; and relationship difficulties.
How Are Male Sexual Problems Diagnosed?
To diagnose a man's sexual problem, the doctor likely will begin with a thorough history of symptoms. They may order other tests to rule out any medical problems that may be contributing to the dysfunction. The doctor may refer you to other doctors, including a urologist (a doctor specializing in the urinary tract and male reproductive system), an endocrinologist (a doctor specializing in hormonal issues), a neurologist (a doctor specializing in disorders of the nervous system), sex therapists, and other counselors.
What Tests Are Used to Evaluate Sexual Problems?
Several tests can be used to evaluate the causes and extent of male sexual problems. They include:
- Blood tests. These tests may be done to evaluate hormone levels as well as to check for diabetes, high cholesterol and other risk factors.
- Vascular assessment. This involves an evaluation of the blood flow to the penis. A blockage in a blood vessel supplying blood to the penis may be contributing to erectile dysfunction.
- Sensory testing. Particularly useful in evaluating the effects of diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), sensory testing measures the strength of nerve impulses in a particular area of the body.
- Nocturnal penile tumescence and rigidity testing. This test is used to monitor erections that happen naturally during sleep. This test can help determine if a man's erectile problems are due to physical or psychological causes.
How Is Male Sexual Dysfunction Treated?
Many cases of male sexual dysfunction can be corrected by treating the underlying physical or psychological problems. Treatment strategies may include the following:
- Medical treatment. This involves treatment of any physical problem that may be contributing to a man's sexual dysfunction.
- Medications. Medications, such as tadalafil (Cialis), sildenafil (Viagra) or vardenafil (Levitra), may help improve sexual function in men by increasing blood flow to the penis. Promescent is a drug used to treat premature ejaculation. The topical spray is applied to the penis and contains lidocaine, reducing sensitivity and allowing for more ejaculation control.
- Hormones. Men with low levels of testosterone may benefit from hormone supplementation (testosterone replacement therapy).
- Psychological therapy. Therapy with a trained counselor can help a person address feelings of anxiety, fear, or guilt that may have an impact on sexual function.
- Mechanical aids. Aids such as vacuum devices and penile implants may help men with erectile dysfunction.
- Education and communication. Education about sex and sexual behaviors and responses may help a man overcome their anxieties about sexual performance. Open dialogue with your partner about your needs and concerns also helps to overcome many barriers to a healthy sex life.
Can Sexual Problems Be Cured?
The success of treatment for sexual problems depends on the underlying cause. The outlook is good for dysfunction that is related to a treatable or reversible physical condition. Mild dysfunction that is related to stress, fear, or anxiety often can be successfully treated with counseling, education, and improved communication between partners.
Can Sexual Problems Be Prevented?
While sexual problems cannot be prevented, dealing with the underlying causes of the dysfunction can help you better understand and cope with the problem when it occurs. There are some things you can do to help maintain good sexual function:
- Follow your doctor's treatment plan for any health conditions.
- Find out whether your prescription meds can cause sexual problems. There may be an alternative.
- Limit your intake of alcohol and recreational drugs.
- Quit smoking.
- Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep.
- Deal with any emotional or psychological issues such as stress, depression, and anxiety. Get treatment as needed.
- Increase communication with your partner.
When Should I Call My Doctor About a Sexual Problem?
Many men have a sexual problem from time to time. However, when the problems are persistent, they can cause distress for the man and their partner, and have a negative impact on their relationship. If you consistently experience sexual function problems, see your doctor for evaluation and treatment.