It is estimated that 40 percent of women will experience the frustrating symptoms of sexual dysfunction (FSD) at some point in their lifetime. The catch-all disorder can be characterized by a low sex drive, an inability to become or stay aroused during sexual activity, and/or difficulty in achieving an orgasm.
Though the underlying causes can vary and there is often a complex combination of physiological and social factors at play, one major contributor appears to be fluctuating hormones. Sadly, treatment options are currently limited to a drug called flibanserin, sildenafil (aka Viagra), or hormone therapy. All three are known to have a high rate of unpleasant side effects and often fail to remedy the problem.
But a new pilot study from the University of Michigan suggests that a simple, safe, and effective new therapy could be on the horizon.
As reported in the journal Neuromodulation, sessions of non-invasive electrical nerve stimulation procedure lead to notable improvements in arousal, lubrication, and orgasm in a small group of women with FSD.
The investigation was led by biomedical engineering professor Tim Bruns, who became intrigued with the therapeutic potential of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) devices after hearing that women being treated for bladder control issues reported boosted sexual functioning as an unintended perk.
“In this particular treatment, a patient receives nerve stimulation therapy once a week to improve neural signaling and function in the muscles that control the bladder,” Bruns said in a statement. “The nerves controlling the pelvic organs start out in the same location Bruns in the spinal cord and branch out.”
To target the bladder’s muscles, TENS electrodes can be placed inside the vagina and on the abdomen or on the ankle, over the tibial nerve. According to Bruns, it is believed that this nerve intersects with nerves coming from the pelvic muscles and organs somewhere near the spinal cord, leading to overlapping signaling.
Hoping to determine whether this approach is suitable as a stand-alone treatment for FSD, Bruns and his colleagues first tested it in rats. Two studies released last year and earlier this year showed that 15 to 30-minute sessions of stimulation resulted in promising increases in vaginal blood flow – a known indicator of arousal.
For the current study, Bruns collaborated with OB-GYNs to recruit nine FSD patients. All subjects underwent 12 half-hour sessions of nerve stimulation; six women had electrodes placed over the dorsal genital nerve and three had electrodes placed over the posterior tibial nerve.
After completing the sessions, eight of the nine women said they noticed a difference, and each group’s average score on a female sexual functioning test went up.
“Across a variety of clinical studies, if you get a 50 percent improvement in symptoms, you can consider that a successful response,” Bruns said. “We had four participants meet or exceed that threshold.”
The team is currently seeking funding to conduct a larger study that also includes a control group, so any possible placebo effect can be accounted for.
In the press release, one anonymous subject described the experience as “a bizarre, pressure vibration sensation”, but recalled that she got used to it quickly. “Then, you sit there for 30 minutes. I brought a book to read during my session.”
And was it worth it? Absolutely.
“It worked for me,” she says. “I’m not one-hundred percent back to the way I was, but I can have orgasms again and they are pretty good ones.”