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Nerve stimulation may be effective against female sexual dysfunction

By Allen Cone
Nerve stimulation may be effective against female sexual dysfunction
In a small study, nerve stimulation treatments for bladder dysfunction were effective at improving the condition of women with female sexual dysfunction. Photo by StockSnap/Pixabay

Sept. 5 (UPI) -- Nerve stimulation treatments used to treat bladder dysfunction might improve sexual function among women, according to a study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied how neuromodulation treatments can treat female sexual dysfunction, or FSD, a condition that ranges from a lack of libido to an inability to achieve orgasm. Their findings were published this week in the journal Neuromodulation

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FSD affects 40 percent to 45 percent of women, especially as they age. Current treatments have included sildenafil, which is sold under the brand name Viagra, hormones, flibanserin and estrogen patches, but these methods don't always work and can have side effects.

Flibanserin, sold commercially as Addyi, in 2015 became the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat premenopausal women with low libido. The once-daily, non-hormonal pill is only available with a prescription. An estrogen patch for women in early menopause may also improve their sex drive or function, according to research published last year.

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After two University of Michigan researchers heard that neuromodulation treatments for bladder dysfunction occasionally led to improvements in sexual function, they decided to test it out.

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"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," Dr. Tim Bruns, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Michigan, said in a press release. "The nerves controlling the pelvic organs start out in the same location in the spinal cord and branch out."

The electrodes work best in bladder dysfunction when placed near the tibial nerve in the ankle. The nerves that travel down to the foot are thought to overlap near the spinal cord with some nerves that also go to the pelvic organs.

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After finding no previous research on the treatment method for sexual dysfunction, the researchers first tested the theory on rats. By stimulating nerves in the genital and ankle region of rats, the researchers found a strong increase in vaginal blood flow after 15 to 20 minutes.

Researchers then recruited nine women with FSD who did not have bladder problems to undergo a similar version of the treatment. Each participant received 12 half-hour sessions of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation with electrodes placed in the genital region or on the ankle.

Eight of out the women reported some improvement in arousal, lubrication and orgasm.

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"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 results were as good or greater than prior studies of different types of drugs or neuromodulation for FSD, the researchers say, but that more research is needed as their small study did not use a placebo or any kind of control.

"This study presents an alternative method for treating female sexual dysfunction that is non-pharmacologic and non-invasive," said Dr. Priyanka Gupta, an urologic surgeon at Michigan. "Through studies like this we can further understand female sexual arousal and offer treatments for a disorder that has very few options."

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