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Understanding Sexual Dysfunction and How to Treat It

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Sexual dysfunction is broadly defined as a physical or psychological problem that prevents a person from enjoying or even desiring sexual activity. While the chances of experiencing sexual dysfunction increase with age, people of any age can experience it. It can be caused by many different factors, including hormonal imbalances and stress. Sexual dysfunction may also arise as a symptom of an underlying medical condition like heart disease, diabetes, or depression.

It’s important to recognise that sexual dysfunction is different from asexuality, which is when a person experiences little to no sexual attraction. Sexual dysfunction is a frequent, persistent disruption to a person’s regular sexual life. Fortunately, it can also be treated by addressing the underlying causes or conditions. This feature will walk you through the various types of sexual dysfunction, the different factors that cause it, and how to treat it:

What are the types of sexual dysfunction?

As previously mentioned, sexual dysfunction refers not to a single problem but a diverse range of physical or psychological issues. The different types of sexual dysfunction are classified under four main categories:

  • Desire disorders are also known as low libido or libido disorders. They’re mainly characterised by a lack of sexual desire and an unusual, continual disinterest in sexual activity.
  • Arousal disorders refer to problems that make it difficult or impossible for a person to experience physical arousal and satisfaction during sex, even if they may be interested in sexual activity. Erectile dysfunction, a common type of sexual dysfunction in people with penises, is one type of arousal disorder.
  • Orgasm disorders refer to the inability to climax which can lead to feelings of sexual frustration, even if the affected person is interested in sexual activity. Delayed or absent orgasms are common in people with vaginas but may also affect people with penises.
  • Pain disorders involve experiencing pain or intense physical discomfort during sexual activity. In people with vaginas, this pain may come from vaginal dryness, problems with the vaginal muscles, urinary tract infections (UTIs), or hormonal changes induced by menopause, among other causes. In people with penises, physical damage to the penis, UTIs and other infections, genital herpes, and other conditions might cause pain during intercourse.

That said, it’s normal to occasionally not be in the mood for sex or to have a harder time deriving satisfaction from sexual activity. Paying careful attention to your body can help you determine the difference between a bad night or two and a medical condition requiring treatment. 

What causes sexual dysfunction?

Sexual dysfunction may be caused by all sorts of factors. It’s easiest to understand these factors by separating them into two categories, the physical and the psychological:

Physical causes of sexual dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction is often the product of a larger disease or medical condition, such as:

  • Alcoholism
  • Drug abuse
  • Nerve damage from injury, surgical procedures, or other causes
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular diseases (diseases of the heart or blood vessels)
  • Neurological problems
  • Kidney failure and other chronic diseases

Certain medications, such as antidepressants and medications for regulating blood pressure, can interfere with normal sexual functioning. Recreational alcohol and drug use may also increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing sexual dysfunction.

Psychological causes of sexual dysfunction

Psychologically induced sexual dysfunction is just as common as sexual dysfunction arising from physical causes. Psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and sexual trauma can all impair sexual function. Guilt over sexual activity and desire, stress, relationships, performance anxiety, and problems with body image or self-esteem may also cause sexual dysfunction.

How is sexual dysfunction treated?

Though sexual dysfunction can be a distressing problem, treatment is available to address both psychological and physical causes. Treatment for sexual dysfunction typically involves identifying and targeting the condition or conditions that cause it.

Treating physical sexual dysfunction

If sexual dysfunction is physical, doctors will work with patients to treat the underlying condition causing the issue. Common physical problems like hormonal imbalances, for instance, can be corrected with hormone therapy and medication. If the sexual dysfunction is related to a certain medication the patient is taking for other health concerns, doctors can prescribe alternatives that won’t impact sexual activity.

In particular, many treatment methods are available to people with penises who struggle with erectile dysfunction. Prescription drugs like Viagra are effective for many. Other potentially effective interventions include penile implants, surgery, and mechanical aids.

People with vaginas who suffer from vaginal dryness, meanwhile, may benefit from hormone therapy or from the regular use of lubricating creams or gels.

Treating psychological sexual dysfunction

Psychotherapy, sex therapy, and relationship counselling are all examples of interventions that can help with psychologically induced sexual dysfunction. Counsellors, sex therapists, and other mental health professionals have the necessary training to help patients work through sex- and sexuality-related psychological issues in ways that other physicians may not be able to. They may also recommend sex education, interpersonal communication strategies, or behavioural therapies to help affected couples and individuals lead more fulfilling sex lives.


Continual sexual dysfunction can be anxiety-inducing for the affected person and for their sexual partners, but it doesn’t have to be. If you notice that your problem doesn’t go away over time or if you suspect that you have an underlying illness, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Zuella Montemayor did her degree in psychology at the University of Toronto. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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