IBD and Sexual Health: Is There a Link?

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Are men with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) more likely to experience erectile dysfunction? In a recent study, approximately 39 percent of men experienced some sexual dysfunction and 94 percent had erectile dysfunction.

It’s too soon to declare a physical relationship between the conditions, though, says Dr. Bruce Kava, urology expert and director of men's health for the University of Miami Health System.

“A trend was seen in this research study of 67 men,” he says. “Larger samples will need to be studied in follow-up research. Other physical and mental health factors related to ED also should be included.”

What is inflammatory bowel disease?

IBD causes your digestive tract to become chronically inflamed. IBDs, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, can affect both men and women equally. Crohn's disease occurs in any part of the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcerative colitis only occurs in the large intestine (the colon). Typically, your doctor will prescribe medications to treat these conditions. But if your case is severe, it may require surgery.

“The main cause of IBD is a malfunctioning immune system,” says Dr. Kava. “One’s body loses the ability to fend off viruses, bacterial infections and other risks. Genetics also play a role. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of diagnosed individuals have a family member who also has the disease.”

Why would IBD cause erectile dysfunction?

“The majority of patients diagnosed with IBD are young, between 15 and 40. Typical IBD symptoms include increased bowel frequency, pain in the belly, tiredness, fatigue and/or incontinence. It can be an embarrassing time and a time when one feels less confidence in any intimate encounter. Patients also generally will have less interest anyway in being sexual due to the changes happening in their bodies.”

IBD may impact your sexual health. And it's for the same reason typically seen in males with cancers of the prostate, anus and colon. “Depression and/or anxiety are the greatest risk factors for sexual dysfunction, whether healthy or being treated for a disease of the colorectal area,” says Dr. Kava. “Women are also apt to feel very unattractive during treatment for IBD. And far less interested in being vulnerable physically with someone.”

IBDLet’s talk about sex: Improving doctor-patient dialogue

Open dialogue. It's the best way for physicians and surgeons to help you prevent or address sexual health issues. At the University of Miami Health System, new doctors train on how to to initiate patient conversations about sex.

“We developed a computer simulation program that lets new doctors interact with animated avatar patients,” says Dr. Kava. “It allows them to gain practice before ever treating actual patients.”

According to Dr. Kava, medical students can change the simulated patient's age, race, and other aspects easily. The simulator adapts communication cues and simulations based on those cultural or age variations.

“Overall, the medical profession can and must do a better job communicating with patients about how medical conditions affect psychological well-being and sexual health,” he says. “If we can utilize technology as one way to improve that for future patients, we want to take advantage of that possibility.”

UHealth offers treatment options for men experiencing sexual dysfunction such as ED, including medications, counseling, and other therapies.

Women should contact a doctor if they are experiencing frequent changes in sexual response, orgasm, physical desire and/or discomfort.

Request an appointment online or call 305-243-6090 today for more information.


John Senall is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. He is a former hospital and comprehensive cancer center communications director.