March 21, 2002 -- Women with sex drives stuck in park are often made to feel that the problem is all in their heads, but fledgling research into female sexual dysfunction is proving otherwise. There is growing evidence that any number of physical problems -- including thyroid problems -- can stall a woman's erotic desires.
Studies suggest that as many as half of American women suffer from some type of sexual dysfunction, with lack of interest in sex at the top of the list. Although depression and other psychological issues are major contributors to low libido in women, illness also plays a major role.
"We are finding that the physical risk factors linked to sexual problems in men also apply to women," says Ian L. Goldman, MD, director of the Marshfield Clinic Center for Sexual Health in Marshfield, Wisc. "Issues like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking, obesity all appear to have a significant impact on normal female sexual function, just like they do in men."
Lynn Moyer, nurse practitioner at the clinic, says she commonly sees previously undiagnosed thyroid problems among female patients. The women often report that their sexual desire improves following thyroid treatment.
As many as 10% of women over 50 have some degree of thyroid hormone deficiency, with low thyroid production (hypothyroidism) being most common. Although the problem can usually be identified with a simple blood test, millions of women remain undiagnosed. Symptoms of low thyroid hormone include fatigue and muscle aches, depression, and decrease in sexual desire.
Moyer says she has seen no published studies evaluating the frequency of thyroid disease in women with sexual dysfunction issues. This is not surprising, she adds, because the serious study of female sexual dysfunction is only a few years old.
"Right now, there is no way to know how common this problem is," she says. "But, with the exception of sexual issues related to menopause, I see it more often than anything else in my female patients."
The arrival of Viagra four years ago prompted millions of men to seek treatment for sexual problems. Several other drugs for male impotence should be available within the next year, and there are many other treatment options for men with arousal problems. But there is no magic pill on the horizon for women. And doctors still seem hesitant to bring up the issue with their female patients, Goldman says.
"There is no question that the research has been incredibly gender biased, and, as a result, we are at least a couple of decades ahead with men," he says. "The whole field of female sexual dysfunction is really in its infancy."
Recent studies suggest that women with arousal issues benefit from taking Viagra, but arousal is a problem for just 20%-30% of women who seek help for sexual dysfunction. Goldman says menopausal women who cannot take estrogen because of a history of breast cancer may also benefit from the drug.
He acknowledges that getting women to talk to their doctors about sexual problems, and getting the doctors to listen, is still a challenge. He cites a recent survey finding that more than 70% of patients questioned said they would be hesitant to discuss sex with their doctor.
"It only takes 30 seconds to ask the question, and it should be part of every routine physical exam," he says.