In a previous post on The Pelvic Rehab Report Sagira Vora, PT, MPT, WCS, PRPC shared that "cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to play a significant role in improving sexual function in women". Today, in part three of her ongoing series on sex and pelvic health, Sagira explores how sexual pain affects sexual dysfunction in women.
After having explored what allows for women to have pleasurable sexual experiences including pain-free sex and mind-blowing orgasms, we now turn towards our cohort that have pain with sex and intimacy. How does this group differ from women who do not have pain with sex? Are there some common factors with this group of women, and perhaps understanding these factors may help the pelvic floor therapist render more effective and successful treatment?
There are few studies exploring sexual arousal in women with sexual pain disorders. However, their findings are remarkable. Brauer and colleagues found that genital response, as measured by vaginal photoplethysmography and subjective reports, was found to be equal in women with sexual pain vs. women who did not have pain, when they were shown oral sex and intercourse movie clips. This and other studies have shown that genital response in women with dyspareunia is not impaired. Genital response in women with dyspareunia is however, effected by fear of pain. When Brauer and colleagues subjected women with dyspareunia to threat of electrical shock (not actual shock) while watching an erotic movie clip they found that women with dyspareunia had much diminished sexual response including diminished genital arousal. But Spano and Lamont found that genital response was diminished by fear of pain equally in women with sexual pain and women without sexual pain.
Fear of pain also resulted in increased muscle activity in the pelvic floor. However, this increase was noted in women with pain and women without sexual pain equally and was noted with exposure to sexually threatening film clips as well as threatening film clips without sexual content. The conclusion, then, from these results is that the pelvic floor plays a role in emotional processing and tightening, or overactivity is a protective response noted in all women regardless of sexual pain history.
The one difference that was noted was with women who had the experience of sexual abuse. For them, pelvic floor overactivity was noted when watching sexually threatening as well consensual sexual content. Women without sexual abuse history did not have increased pelvic floor activity when watching consensual sexual content.
In summary, evidence supports the hypothesis that women with sexually adverse experiences tend to have impaired genital response when in consensual sexual situations, however, women who do not have sexual abuse histories and but have sexual pain tend to have appropriate genital response. Both groups, however, have increased pelvic floor muscle activity in consensual sexual situations. This increase in pelvic floor muscle activity leads to muscle pain, reduced blood flow, reduced lubrication, increased friction between penis and vulvar skin and hence leads to pain.
This brings us to our next questions, how does the cohort that has had adverse sexual experiences present? How do women with history of sexual trauma process sexual experiences? How does the pelvic floor present or respond to consensual sexual situations when a woman has been abused in the past? Please tune in to the next blog for answers…
Blok BF, Holstege G. The neuronal control of micturition and its relation to the emotional motor system. Prog Brain Res. 1996; 107:113-26
Brauer M, Laan E, ter Kuile MM. Sexual arousal in women with superficial dyspareunia. Arch Sex Behav. 2006; 35:191-200
Brauer M, ter Kuile MM, Janssen S, Lann E. The effect of pain-related fear on sexual arousal in women with superficial dyspareunia. Eur J Pain: 2007; 11:788-98
Spano L, Lamont JA. Dyspareunia: a symptom of female sexual dysfunction. Can Nurse 1975;71:22-5
In a previous post on The Pelvic Rehab Report, Sagira Vora, PT, MPT, WCS, PRPC explored the impact that pelvic floor exercises can have on arousal and orgasm in women. Today we hear part two of the conversation, and learn what factors can impact a woman's ability to achieve orgasm.
“An orgasm in the human female is a variable, transient peak sensation of intense pleasure, creating an altered state of consciousness, usually with an initiation accompanied by involuntary, rhythmic contractions of the pelvic striated circumvaginal musculature, often with concomitant uterine and anal contractions, and myotonia that resolves the sexually induced vasocongestion and myotonia, generally with an induction of well-being and contentment.”
Wow, that sounds like paradise! The question is--how to get there? Many of our cohorts and many our female patients have not experienced this or orgasm happens for them rarely. Findings from surveys and clinical reports suggest that orgasm problems are the second most frequently reported sexual problems in women. Some of the reasons cited for lack of orgasm are orgasm importance, sexual desire, sexual self-esteem, and openness of sexual communication with partner by Kontula el. al. in 2016. Rowland found that most commonly-endorsed reasons were stress/anxiety, insufficient arousal, and lack of time during sex, body image, pain, inadequate lubrication.
One factor that comes up consistently, is the ability of women to focus on sexual stimuli. This point has been brought up by various studies and presented in different ways. Chambless talks about mindfulness training and improvements in orgasm ability noted equally in women who practiced mindfulness vs. women who engaged in Kegels and mindfulness. Rosenbaum and Padua note in their book, The Overactive Pelvic Floor, “women who do not have a low-tone pelvic floor and who seek to enhance sexual arousal and more frequent orgasms have not much to gain from pelvic floor muscle training. Actually, a relaxed pelvic floor and mindful attention to sexual stimuli and bodily sensations seem a more effective means of enhancing sexual arousal and orgasm.” Various studies specifically studying the effect of mindfulness training have demonstrated both improved arousal and orgasm ability in women who practiced mindfulness. Brotto and Basson found their treatment group, which consisted of 68 otherwise healthy women, who underwent mindful meditation, cognitive behavioral training and education, improved in sexual desire, sexual arousal, lubrication, sexual satisfaction, and overall sexual functioning.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to play a significant role in improving sexual function in women. Meston et. al. notes, “cognitive behavioral therapy for anorgasmia focuses on promoting changes in attitudes and sexually relevant thoughts, decreasing anxiety, and increasing orgasmic ability and satisfaction. To date there are no pharmacological agents proven to be beneficial beyond placebo in enhancing orgasmic function in women.”
Alas, there are no magic pills to create the above described “state of altered consciousness,” allowing women a sense of “well-being and contentment.” However, mindfulness training and cognitive behavioral therapy are both accessible and attainable for women who want to improve their ability to enjoy this much desired state. Many Pelvic floor therapist incorporate cognitive behavioral and mindfulness approaches in their practice.
The studies above mention pain as one of the factors for inability to experience arousal and orgasm. Hucker and Mccabe even noted that their mindfulness treatment group demonstrated significant improvements in all domains of female sexual response except for sexual pain. Dealing with sexual pain is a daily battle pelvic floor therapist face each day. So, how do women with sexual pain dysfunction differ from women who are experiencing sexual dysfunction but not pain? Let’s explore this in our next blog…
Chambless DL, Sultan FE, Stern TE, O’Neill C, Garrison S. Jackson A. Effect of pubococcygeal exercise on coital orgasm in women. J Consult CLin Psychol. 1984; 52:114-8
Bratto LA, Basson R. Group mindfulness-based therapy significantly improves sexual desire in women Behav Res Ther. 2014 Jun; 57:43-5
Hucker A. Mccabe MP. Incorporating Mindfulness and Chat Groups Into an Online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mixed Female Sexual Problems. J Sex Res. 2015;52(6):627-33
Kontula O., Mettienen A. Determinants of female sexual orgasms. Socioaffect Neurosci Psychol. 2016 Oct 25;6:31624. doi: 10.3402/snp.v6.31624. eCollection 2016
Meston CM1, Levin RJ, Sipski ML, Hull EM, Heiman JR. Women’s orgasm. Annu Rev Sex Res. 2004;15:173-257. Review
Rosenbaum, Talli Y., Padoa, Anna. The overactive Pelvic floor. 1st ed. 2016
Roland DL, Cempel LM, Tempel AR. Women’s attributions on why they have difficulty reaching orgasm. J. Marital Therapy. 2018 Jan 3:0