A male hormone patch might increase women’s libido, reported The Times on August 18th. The newspaper said, “The treatment claims to make women feel much more frisky, and gives lacklustre libidos a boost.”
The newspaper reports that the study compared use of skin patches containing testosterone with use of a placebo, and found that sexual urges were more common in women using the testosterone patches.
The study was based on a survey of women and was relatively well-conducted. It suggests that testosterone patches may help women suffering from reduced libido. However, some women who only received a placebo also reported benefits, underlining the difficulty in establishing cause and effect in this area.
Where did the story come from?
The study was led by Sheryl Kingsberg and colleagues from hospitals and medical centres in Cleveland, Baltimore and Boston. It was funded by Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Journal of Sexual Medicine .
What kind of scientific study was this?
This study was a survey of a ‘representative’ sample of 132 women who had had their ovaries removed and had been diagnosed with ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’, a condition that results in low sexual desire. All were participating in two larger controlled trials, which enrolled about 1,000 women. All were given testosterone patches or a placebo and the survey looked at whether the patches had a meaningful effect.
The larger study was carefully controlled. However, the 132 women involved in the smaller survey represented only 12% of the total and were therefore to some extent self-selecting individuals, though at the time of their interviews they still didn't know whether they had received testosterone or placebo in the randomised trial. They were then interviewed about their sex lives before and after using the patches.
What were the results of the study?
Half the women who used the testosterone patches reported that they had experienced a “meaningful benefit” from the treatment. However, about a third of women who received the placebo also thought their libido had improved.
What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?
The researchers concluded that testosterone patches do provide clinically meaningful improvements in sexual behaviour and feelings in women who have had their ovaries removed and who suffer from hypoactive sexual desire disorder.
What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?
This survey aimed to assess whether women enrolled in trials comparing testosterone and placebo felt that treatment gave a meaningful improvement in sex drive and behaviour. This study seems reasonably reliable, if small. The results are supported by the overall findings of the randomised controlled trials, which found benefit with the testosterone patches. There are a few limitations to the study that should be borne in mind, and the authors acknowledge these:
- Only a small subset of women who had taken part in the trials were selected for interview, so they may not be representative of all of the women who took part in the study.
- The study was conducted in the US among mainly Caucasian women. These results may not be representative of treatment effects in other populations.
- The newspaper report of this story did not make it clear that these were results in a study of post-menopausal women only. You may get the impression that testosterone patches could be used on occasion by young women to boost their libido. This is not necessarily the case.