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Dummy pill may improve women’s sex life

Sept. 17, 2010
Courtesy of Wiley-Blackwell
and World Science staff

A pill con­tain­ing no med­i­cine at all may help im­prove the sex life of wom­en with low sex­u­al arous­al, sci­en­tists have found.

Place­bos, or dum­my pills, have been found to im­prove symp­toms in var­i­ous med­i­cal con­di­tions simply through their psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects. Pa­tients of­ten feel bet­ter just be­cause they think they’re get­ting a treat­ment.

An­drea Brad­ford, a psy­chol­o­gist at Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine in Tex­as, and Cin­dy Me­ston of the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Aus­tin, an­a­lyzed the be­hav­iors and symp­toms of 50 wom­en who were ran­domly cho­sen to re­ceive pla­ce­bo in a large clin­i­cal tri­al of a drug treat­ment for low sex­u­al arous­al.

Nei­ther the wom­en nor the sci­en­tists knew wheth­er the wom­en were tak­ing the real drug or pla­ce­bo.

Af­ter 12 weeks, symp­toms in about one in three of these wom­en im­proved to a de­gree that most clin­i­cians would con­sid­er a mean­ing­ful change, the re­search­ers re­ported. Most of that im­provement seemed to hap­pen in the first month.

The most im­por­tant pre­dic­tor of symp­tom change was an in­crease in the fre­quen­cy of sat­is­fy­ing sex­u­al en­coun­ters dur­ing the treat­ment, ac­cord­ing to Brad­ford and Me­ston. Many wom­en even re­ported re­ceiv­ing great­er sex­u­al stimula­t­ion dur­ing the stu­dy per­iod, even though their part­ners re­ceived no spe­cial in­struc­tions.

“It’s im­por­tant to note that, even though these wom­en re­ceived pla­ce­bo, they all had an op­por­tun­ity to talk to a health pro­vid­er about their dif­fi­cul­ties and were asked to closely mon­i­tor their sex­u­al be­hav­ior and feel­ings over a 12-week pe­ri­od. Just tak­ing part in this study probably started some mean­ing­ful con­versa­t­ions,” said Brad­ford. 

“Our study shows that even a lim­it­ed in­ter­ven­tion can have a pos­i­tive ef­fect in many wom­en with sex­u­al dys­func­tion,” she added. “This comes as no sur­prise to sex ther­a­pists, but it does sug­gest a need to in­ves­t­i­gate be­hav­ioral fac­tors more closely in clin­i­cal tri­als.” 

The study is pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Sex­u­al Med­i­cine.


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A pill containing no medicine at all may help improve the sex life of women with low sexual arousal, scientists have found. Placebos, or dummy pills, have been found to improve symptoms in various medical conditions simply through their psychological effects. Patients often feel better simply because they think they’re receiving a treatment. Andrea Bradford, a psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, and Cindy Meston of the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed the behaviors and symptoms of 50 women who were randomly chosen to receive placebo in a large clinical trial of a drug treatment for low sexual arousal. Neither the women nor the scientists knew whether the women were taking the real drug or placebo. After 12 weeks, symptoms in about one in three of these women improved to a degree that most clinicians would consider a meaningful change, the researchers reported. Most of that improvement seemed to happen in the first month. The most important predictor of symptom change was an increase in the frequency of satisfying sexual encounters during the treatment, according to Bradford and Meston. Many women even reported receiving more sexual stimulation while the trial was going on, even though their partners received no special instructions. “It’s important to note that, even though these women received placebo, they all had an opportunity to talk to a health provider about their difficulties and were asked to closely monitor their sexual behavior and feelings over a 12-week period. Just taking part in this study probably started some meaningful conversations,” said Bradford. “Our study shows that even a limited intervention can have a positive effect in many women with sexual dysfunction,” she added. “This comes as no surprise to sex therapists, but it does suggest a need to investigate behavioral factors more closely in clinical trials.” The study is published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.