'Placebo Effect' May Help Women's Sexual Problems

Some Women Report Improvement Even Though They Received 'Sham' Treatment

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 16, 2010 -- It is said that a woman's most important erogenous zone is her brain, and now new research lends scientific support to the claim.

The study examined the "placebo effect" in studies of therapies designed to treat female sexual dysfunction.

Researchers analyzed data from 50 women unknowingly randomly assigned to the placebo arm of a 2000 study examining the ED drug Cialis for the treatment of female sexual arousal problems.

Even though none of the women took the active drug, about a third showed clinically meaningful improvement in sexual desire over 12 weeks of treatment. Desire improved for most women within a month of starting the sham drug.

The women talked to therapists, kept diaries of their sexual activity, and filled out a 19-item questionnaire detailing their sexual symptoms while participating in the study.

Researcher Andrea Bradford, PhD, says these and other mental exercises linked to their participation in the trial probably explain the improvement in the placebo group.

Bradford is a postdoctoral fellow at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

"These women and their partners were probably more focused on their sex lives than they had been," she says. "Putting in the mental effort seems to have made the difference."

More than a decade after the approval of Viagra for men, there is still no drug for the treatment of sexual dysfunction in women.

Eli Lilly never sought federal approval to market Cialis to women, and studies of Viagra in women were equally disappointing.

Earlier this year the FDA failed to approve the drug flibanserin, which had been dubbed the "female Viagra," noting that studies did not show a significant increase in sexual desire associated with its use.

Urologist and expert on female sexual issues Jennifer Berman, MD, says it is no surprise the research has failed to find a pill as effective in women as ED drugs have been in men.

"These drugs treat erectile dysfunction very effectively, but women don't need to have an appendage working properly to have sex," she says. "It is much more complicated than that."

She says it is unlikely a single "magic bullet" drug will emerge to treat female sexual dysfunction.

"It is impossible to separate the mind from the body when you are dealing with sexual dysfunction in women," Berman says.

Surveys suggest that about 43% of American women have some level of sexual dysfunction.

The study reviewed by Bradford and colleagues did not include women with obvious physical causes for their sexual dysfunction. The study also included few women who related their sexual problems to past sexual trauma.

"These women certainly may need more intensive, targeted treatment," Bradford says. "But this study demonstrates that for a good proportion of women without these issues, minimal interventions can have a meaningful impact."

The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

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SOURCES: Bradford, A. Journal of Sexual Medicine, September 2010; online edition.Andrea Bradford, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.Jennifer R. Berman, MD, urologist, co-founder, Female Sexual Medicine Center, University of California, Los Angeles.News release, Wiley-Blackwell.

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