September 16th, 2010
10:57 AM ET

Fake pill improved sex drive in women

"Faking it" has long been associated with bad sex for some women, but a new study provides a pleasant twist on that phrase. According to a paper released today in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the placebo effect may increase sex drive for women suffering from sexual dysfunction.

"It may be that their behavior changed as part of getting treatment, even if the treatment itself was an inert tablet," said Andrea Bradford, lead study author.

It was a small study: 200 women who had been diagnosed with female sexual arousal disorder - difficulty becoming aroused or maintaining sexual activity - participated in a study to find out whether a popular male erectile dysfunction drug - Cialis - could also treat female sexual dysfunction.  The women agreed to engage in sex acts over the course of 12 weeks and keep a diary. Fifty women were chosen at random to receive a placebo rather than the investigational drug.

Prior to each sexual encounter the women took the placebo (a sugar pill) and after the encounter filled out a questionnaire about whether sex was satisfying or whether they had experienced an orgasm.

To qualify for the study, women had to be premenopausal (between 35-55 years of age) and have no medical conditions that could explain their diminished sexual desire (for example, pelvic surgery or a radical hysterectomy).

By the end of the study, researchers discovered that while Cialis did not markedly improve sexual dysfunction in women, one out of three women had their previously low level of desire restored to one considered to be normal with placebo.

"It's not that these women simply believed, 'a sugar pill will help me,'" said Bradford, a post-doctoral fellow at Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. "Other elements were probably therapeutic, regardless of the tablet."

Those other elements may be largely psychological, said Bradford - a function of the women simply focusing more attention on their sex lives.

The study raises more questions than it answers, but the idea of a sham medical intervention addressing female sexual dysfunction speaks to the complexities of female sexuality. It may mean that addressing sexual dysfunction among women will never be as simple as prescribing a "little pink pill" (much like the "little blue pill" marketed to men with erectile dysfunction).

"Maybe we're calling something a disease that is not a disease in the same way as diabetes is," said Bradford. "There may be physical causes for lower sexual desire, but one thing that is clear is there's not one cause."

One implied message in the study: A psychological investment in improving their sex life could obviate the need for a drug for some women.

"It would be great if we had a drug but it may not be your only hope and there may be some real simple steps you can take toward improving your sex life that don't need to involve medication," said Bradford.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.