Trigger warning: this blog article covers topics of sexual abuse and depression.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing suicidal thoughts or crisis, visit your nearest hospital emergency or seek help from these suicide crisis helplines.
Most women will experience some form of sexual problem or related health concern during their lifetime, with more than 60% of Australian women reporting an issue with sexual dysfunction in a single year.
It’s important to understand that women’s sexual health issues are not purely associated with sexual intercourse, but can be associated with various problems throughout the pelvic region and other areas of the body.
While the list of possible concerns surrounding women’s sexual health is complex and lengthy, it’s important to be aware of the most common concerns and symptoms. This knowledge will allow you to know when it’s time to ask for help and give you the added peace of mind that comes from knowing what treatments are available to you.
Uterine fibroids appear as noncancerous growths on the muscular wall of the uterine lining. While this condition has been seen in women of all ages, it commonly manifests when a woman reaches childbearing bearing age, generally between 25 and 40 years old.
Although these types of fibroids are mostly benign, if they grow to a large size they can still cause a great deal of pain and discomfort. Pain caused by uterine fibroids almost always presents in the pelvic or lower back region, with most women reporting the greatest level of discomfort and cramping during menstruation or when engaging in sexual activity.
Severe pain caused by uterine fibroids can sometimes result in decreased sexual desire or sexual dysfunction.
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that can pose serious health concerns for young women, with some experiencing the early onset of symptoms at only 12 years of age, following their first menstrual period.
PCOS is caused by an imbalance of hormone levels and metabolic problems, which can affect fertility and other areas of general health and wellbeing. Some women with PCOS have higher risk factors for developing secondary health problems, including diabetes and complications with heart and blood vessel functionality.
While some will be aware of the symptoms and condition from a young age, other women are often unaware of PCOS until they reach childbearing age and attempt to become pregnant. Although it can be a cause for infertility, in most cases, PCOS is a highly manageable and treatable condition.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Sexually transmitted infections are one of the most common concerns for both men and women. Although many STIs are highly contagious, the majority are asymptomatic, resulting in a greater risk of unknowingly spreading infections during sexual activity.
According to studies conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), about a quarter of all new infections can be attributed to either chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis or trichomoniasis.
In addition to these figures, more than 500 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 have a genital infection with the herpes simplex virus strain 1 (HSV-1). Although HSV-1 is most commonly associated with the manifestation of fluid filled sacs around the mouth, known as cold sores or fever blisters, the disease can also be spread through oral sex, resulting in the development of genital herpes.
Endometriosis is one of the uncurable sexual problems facing women around the world, with tens of thousands of hospitalisations each year in Australia alone.
This condition can impede sexual function, along with causing further complications to other areas of the body. Endometriosis occurs when cells that share similarities to those found in the uterus grow in other parts of the body. Although these cells are not located in the womb, the shared similarities cause them to respond to messages from the ovaries.
When normal sexual function occurs, such as menstrual bleeding, these cells in other areas also bleed, leading to the inflammation and scarring of other organs.
If you experience any of the following symptoms associated with endometriosis, consult a women’s health specialist for diagnosis and treatment:
Severe abdominal pain
Bleeding from the bladder or bowel
Hypoactive sexual desire disorder
Although hypoactive sexual desire disorder is not commonly heard of, research suggests that it may often go undiagnosed, as a result of women not disclosing their sexual activities with their health care professional.
The Journal of Sexual Medicine identifies this type of female sexual dysfunction as a reoccurring or persistent absence of sexual desire. Many women who are afflicted with this disorder have very little sex drive and a low libido, making it exceedingly difficult to achieve any significant sexual response to stimuli. This classification of sexual arousal disorder can be caused by mental illness, substance use, medications or relationship problems.
For some, the experience of female sexual dysfunction is not seen in difficulties with arousal or sexual excitement, but rather in complications with reproductive problems.
Promoting positive reproductive health supports both couples and individuals in deciding whether or when to have children. Research conducted by the Australian government reveals that 1 in 9 couples face health problems that directly affect fertility.
Some of the most common reproductive health concerns for women include:
Erectile dysfunction in men
Blocked blood flow to the pelvic area
Restricted blood vessel reactions
Pain from physical changes or injuries
Other types of female sexual dysfunction
Cervical, ovarian, breast, prostate and testicular cancers
Approximately 75% of women will experience thrush during their lifetime, according to statistics published by the Australian government. Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of yeast, commonly presenting as thick, white discharge.
This vaginal condition can lead to female sexual dysfunction, as itchiness and pain may compromise the ability to comfortability engage in sexual activity. With the right treatment, thrush can be easily and effectively managed.
Interstitial cystitis is a chronic painful bladder infection, often causing extreme discomfort in the pelvic region. Due to the similarities in symptoms, interstitial cystitis is initially often misdiagnosed as a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Women with interstitial cystitis may experience pain ranging from moderate to severe levels, which will often result in a decreased desire for sexual activity. Increased frequency of urination is a common symptom of the condition. If left untreated, interstitial cystitis has the potential to cause reoccurring sexual problems, due to the pain and discomfort caused by sexual intercourse.
Although some women who experience this sexual dysfunction can still enjoy intercourse, the condition occurs when a woman has difficulty reaching orgasm or climax. Orgasmic disorder, also known as anorgasmia, makes it almost impossible for women to achieve an orgasm, even when adequate sexual arousal and sexual stimulation has been achieved.
This type of impeded sexual function can cause many women to feel elevated levels of distress or pressure in relationships. Some people diagnosed with anorgasmia develop the permanence of an inability to enjoy sex.
Although some of the aforementioned sexual problems can also be symptoms of hormonal changes, many women find this in itself to be an issue that greatly affects their sexual function.
Hormonal changes are most commonly seen as women age naturally, through puberty, pregnancy, menopause and everything in between. Hormones play an integral role in how well our bodies function, as blood flow through the capillary beds is regulated by the signals received from our nerves and hormones.
Understanding the link between hormones and sexual dysfunction in women
When hormone levels change during the onset of puberty, females are likely to experience many physical changes, such as excess hair growth around the pubic region, increased blood flow and a peak in sexual interest or behaviour.
Progesterone, estrogen and testosterone all impact the female sexual response system, affecting how each woman perceives desire and arousal. In many cases, sexual dysfunction in women is only identified after their first sexual encounter.
Menopause and sexual experiences
As women age, hormone levels naturally change, which trigger menopause and other health related factors. Menopause occurs when a woman has not menstruated for 12 consecutive months. During menopause, many women experience a significant decrease in estrogen levels, resulting in vaginal dryness.
It is not uncommon for sexual dysfunction in women to occur when initially experiencing menopause, particularly when vaginal dryness is making it difficult to enjoy sex. Vaginal lubricants can provide a highly effective way to manage these symptoms, allowing women to rekindle their sex life and elevate their comfort in everyday life. Other symptoms of menopause include hot flashes, noticeable changes in mood and night sweats.
Triggers and risk factors for sexual dysfunction in women
Although sexual dysfunction is often a result of natural changes in the body or other internal health conditions, there are a number of triggers and risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing sexual dysfunction or even amplify the symptoms.
Specific medications can cause a hormone imbalance, low libido or decreased sex drive. Pain relievers, heart medications, diuretics and mental health medications have all been known to increase the likelihood of sexual dysfunction in women and men.
A history of sexual assault can often lead to an acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder later in life. Research shows a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and sexual dysfunction.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing sexual abuse or crisis, visit your nearest hospital emergency or seek help from these crisis support helplines.
Issues within a relationship can be the cause of, or can result in, sexual dysfunction for both men and women. If either person in a relationship does not feel sexual desire from their partner, it can cause a tremendous amount of strain in both your everyday life and sex life.
Physical and general health
Physical changes to ones health can also trigger episodes of sexual dysfunction, from issues with mobility and physical injury, to insomnia and other medical conditions.
Adequate sleep is required for the body to regulate hormone functions, so it’s never been more important to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep disorders are a common health issue, affecting around 45% of adults.
If you’re concerned that poor sleep habits may be causing sexual dysfunction in your life, there are a number of effective sleep treatments available, to assist you in managing your condition.
How to treat sexual dysfunction
If you’re experiencing any concerns with sexual dysfunction, it’s important for both men and women to talk openly, with an emphasis on continuing connection and rapport with a partner.
A healthcare professional will be able to diagnosis your concerns and create a treatment plan to assist in managing sexual dysfunction.
When faced with a sexual health problem, it is not uncommon for people to feel ashamed about the issue. It’s important to understand that you are not alone, with more than 60% of women and around 55% of men in Australia reporting at least one sexual health problem in a 12 month period.
We’re here to help
Finding female sexual health care specialists in Australia has never been easier, with digital services that allow for professional and discreet consultation. If you’re experiencing sexual dysfunction or a related women’s health problem, start a conversation with a doctor today.