Feb. 29, 2012 at 5:32 PM ET
By Karen Rowan
Women who get frequent headaches or migraines are more likely than others to have sexual problems, a new study from Italy says.
The results show that more than 90 percent of women seeking medical treatment for their headaches had significant impairments of their sexual function, and 29 percent reported being distressed over their sex life.
"Women referred for severe head pain report a high rate of sexual symptoms and sexual distress," including low desire and sexual pain, the researchers wrote in their study.
Therefore, doctors treating people with headaches should routinely ask their patients about sexual problems, the researchers concluded.
The study was published online Feb. 9 in the journal of Sexual Medicine.
Headaches & sex
Researchers at the University of Pavia looked at 100 women, whose average age was 40, who were being treated for headaches they'd suffered for years. Most had migraines; some had tension headaches or chronic headaches (meaning they had headaches more than 15 days per month).
Researchers interviewed the women, gave them neurological exams and collected detailed medical histories. The women also completed questionnaires about their sex lives.
They found 91 of the participants' scores on a questionnaire showed they had sex problems beyond what would be considered within the normal range.
And 20 percent of the women met the criteria for having hypoactive sexual desire disorder, where a persistently low sex drive causes personal distress. A further 17 percent reported having a low sex drive, but not feeling distressed about it.
Although the women's overall sexual function didn't vary across the different types of headaches, the women with chronic headaches were more likely than other participants to report feeling distressed about their sex lives.
Why the link?
Little is known about sexuality in female headache sufferers, the researchers said. "Further studies are needed to gain a better insight into the determinants of this overrepresentation of sexual dysfunction in women treated for primary headaches."
But there are several ways the link between headaches and sex problems might be explained, the study said. Research has shown that any type of chronic pain affects desire and arousal. In addition, people with headaches often have mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, which also affect sex drive and satisfaction, and further, medications taken to treat headaches or these mood disorders can interfere with sex.
Headaches can also cause strife in couples, sending their sex life into a slump.
The researchers noted that their findings were limited in that the study participants were a highly selected sample. The high rates of sexual problems they found might in part be due to the long and severe history of headaches the women had.