Below the Belt: Sexual Dysfunction Overlooked in Women With Diabetes

Liam Davenport

March 30, 2022

Among patients with diabetes, women are just as likely as men to suffer from sexual dysfunction, but their issues are overlooked, with the narrative focusing mainly on the impact of this issue on men, say experts.

Women with diabetes can experience reduced sexual desire, painful sex, reduced lubrication, and sexual distress, increasing the risk of depression, and such issues often go unnoticed despite treatments being available, said Kirsty Winkley, PhD, diabetes nurse and health psychologist, King's College London, UK.

There is also the "embarrassment factor" on the side of both the healthcare professional and the patient, she said in a session she chaired at the Diabetes UK Professional Conference 2022 this week. Many women with diabetes "wouldn't necessarily know" that their sexual dysfunction "is related to their diabetes," she told Medscape Medical News.

For women, sexual health conversations are "often about contraception and pregnancy," as well as menstrual disorders, genital infections, and hormone replacement therapy. "As healthcare professionals, you're trained to focus on those things, and you're not really considering there might be sexual dysfunction. If women aren't aware that it's related to diabetes, you've got the perfect situation where it goes under the radar."

However, co-chair Debbie Cooke, PhD, health psychologist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, explained that having psychotherapy embedded within the diabetes team and "integrated throughout the whole service" means that the problem can be identified and treatment offered.

The issue is that such integration is "very uncommon" and access needs to be improved, Cooke told Medscape Medical News.

Sexual Dysfunction Major Predictor of Depression in Women

Jacqueline Fosbury, psychotherapy lead at Diabetes Care for You, Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust, said that "intimate activity is clearly beneficial for emotional and physical health," as it is associated with increased oxytocin release, the burning of calories, better immunity, and improved sleep.

Sexual dysfunction is common in people with diabetes, she noted. Poor glycemic control can "damage" blood vessels and nerves, causing reduced blood flow and loss of sensation in sexual organs.

A recent study led by Belgian researchers found that among more than 750 adults with diabetes 36% of men and 33% of women reported sexual dysfunction.

Sexual dysfunction was more common in women with type 1 diabetes, at 36%, compared with 26% for those with type 2 diabetes. The most commonly reported issues were decreased sexual desire, lubrication problems, orgasmic dysfunction, and pain. Body image problems and fear of hypoglycemia also affect sexuality and intimacy, leading to "sexual distress."

Moreover, Fosbury said female sexual dysfunction has been identified as a "major predictor" of depression, she added, which in turn reduces libido.

Treatments for women can include lubricants, local estrogen, and medications that are prescribed off-label such as sildenafil. The same is true of testosterone therapy, which can be used to boost libido.

Couples Therapy?

Next, Trudy Hannington, a psychosexual therapist with Leger Clinic, Doncaster, UK, talked about how to use an integrated approach to address sexuality overall in people with diabetes.

She said this should be seen in a biopsychosocial context, with emphasis on the couple, on sensation and communication, and sexual growth, as well as changes in daily routines.

There should be a move away from "penetrative sex," Hannington said, with the goal being "enjoyment, not orgasm." Pleasure should be facilitated and the opportunities for "performance pressure and/or anxiety" reduced.

She discussed the case of Marie, a 27-year-old woman with type 1 diabetes who had been referred with painful sex and vaginal dryness. Marie had "never experienced orgasm," despite being in a same-sex relationship with Emily.

Marie's treatment involved a sexual growth program, to which Emily was invited, as well as recommendations to use lubricants, vibrators, and to try sildenafil.

Prioritize Women

Fosbury reiterated that, in men, sexual dysfunction is "readily identified as a complication of diabetes" and is described as "traumatic" and "crucial to well-being." It is also seen as "easy to treat" with medication, such as that for erectile dysfunction.

It is therefore is crucial to talk to women with diabetes about possible sexual dysfunction, and the scene must be set before the appointment to explain that the subject will be broached. In addition, handouts and leaflets should be available for patients in the clinic so they can read about female sexual health and to lower the stigma around discussing it.

"Cultural stereotypes diminish the importance of female sexuality and prevent us from providing equal consideration to the sexual difficulties of our patients," she concluded.

No funding declared. No relevant financial relationships declared.

Diabetes UK Professional Conference 2022. Session: Sexual healing in the diabetes clinic. Presented March 28, 2022.

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