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Sexual Health: Love, Lust and Life

Bye-Bye Bedroom Headaches: Viagra Dreams for Women?

By Naomi Mendelsohn

In men, the endpoint is an erection. Is an orgasm the endpoint for women? Or, is it an improvement in their relationship?

One little blue pill has cured millions of "headaches" around the world. Unfortunately, those headaches only belonged to one half of the world's population - men. But, what about the rest of us?

For a while, it seemed hope was closer than the horizon.

Just this past year, for the first time ever, scientists devised a technique that could actually quantify a woman's sexual response. This new tool was the first step for doctors trying to spice up women's sex lives.

And it couldn't have come at a better time.

This past October, 450 doctors gathered at Boston University Medical School to define and discuss Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD). Not only was this a first critical step in understanding and treating the problem, it was the first time the disorder had actually been given a name.

What is FSD?

FSD affects at least 43% of women aged 18 to 54 and has an even higher incidence in older women. Some doctors speculate that the percentage of women suffering from FSD could be as high as 70%, depending upon the age group.

Because sexuality is less understood in women than it is in men, FSD is not as easy to define.

"In men, the endpoint is an erection. Is an orgasm the endpoint for women? Or, is it an improvement in their relationship?" asked Dr. Jennifer Berman, director of the Women's Sexual Health clinic at Boston University Medical School.

To answer these questions, Berman and other doctors proposed a working definition of FSD. An umbrella term that encompasses four different sexuality disorders, FSD includes: libido disorder, or a lack of sexual interest; arousal disorder, or the inability to maintain lubrication or vaginal swelling; orgasmic disorder, or the inability to, or difficulty in reaching orgasm; and finally, sexual pain disorder.

"Women may have one or more of the disorders or they may overlap," said Dr. Berman. "The dysfunction may be psychologically or physiologically based, but usually it is a combination of two."

Although seemingly more complex than male sexual dysfunction, FSD has several key issues in common with its male counterpart.

"Doctors initially thought that a man's inability to have an erection was emotionally based, caused by depression or performance anxiety," said Dr. Berman. "But, it turns out, 90% are physiological or medically based. It's similar with women."

Is Viagra the answer?

The seeming similarities between female and male sexual dysfunction would seem to point to common cures, right?

Not so fast. This past week, researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver released the results of the first significant clinical trials of Viagra on women. And the findings proved to be a let down, literally.

Of 583 women with various sexual disorders taking part in the study, Viagra fared as well as the placebo sugar pill. According to questionnaires that the women filled out as part of the study, 30-50 percent said they were helped by Viagra while 43 percent who took the placebo also said they were helped.

Researchers concluded that although Viagra apppeared safe for women, it failed to show any statistical significance in improving sexual response.

But, hopes have not waned. According to a Pfizer spokesperson, the company will continue to do more clinical testing of Viagra in women.

The Critics

Although some doctors are optimistic about the treatments, others in the medical community have their doubts — especially when it comes to Viagra.

"This is embarking on a magic bullet approach rather than a more holistic approach to women's total health," explains Judy Norsigian, program director of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, the not-for-profit public interest women's health organization that published Our Bodies, Ourselves. "We need qualitative research relating to the ways women learn about their bodies. The idea that we even know what FSD is yet, is outrageous."

Norsigian and her colleagues fear the overuse of "band-aid" or "crutch" solutions - like drug treatments - without substantial research. Other critics believe that using a little magic pill to cure sexual dysfunction ignores the psychological implications that might underlie such a disorder.

These fears are not new to Dr. Berman.

"The idea that Viagra is a crutch and not a treatment does not get to the heart of the issue. This is a physiological and medical problem. Women should not be denied therapies that would improve their sexual response. FSD is not in their heads."

But, Berman, explains, "Giving a woman a pill and sending her back to a dysfunctional relationship is not the answer."

Don't get your hopes - or anything else - up yet

So what should people with FSD do in the meantime?

Currently, the FDA does not currently approve anything for the treatment of FSD. But if you're looking to put the zip back into your sex life, there are other options.

"Hormone replacement therapy is not approved for this usage, but people use it," says Dr. Berman.

In addition, a recent paper published by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals highlights certain herbal cures that might increase libido. These alternative therapies include damiana, ginseng, gotu, koala and cohosh.

If these remedies still don't satisfy, sit tight. More placebo trials of Viagra's effectivenss are on the way as are other potential treatments for FSD. If the results are positive, women could truly be ushering in the 21st century with a bang.

Naomi Mendelsohn is a content editor at savvyHEALTH.com.

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