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The clitoris steps into the spotlight with major scientific discovery


 

The patients of Jill Krapf, MD, are often too embarrassed to tell her about discomfort in their clitoris.

“I ask all of my patients about clitoral pain, and it is often the first time they have ever been asked about this,” says Dr. Krapf, the associate director of the Center for Vulvovaginal Disorders, a private clinic in Washington and New York.

Dr. Krapf is an ob.gyn. who specializes in female sexual pain that involves the pelvis, vagina, and vulva.

Many of the conditions Dr. Krapf treats don’t have outward symptoms that appear abnormal, but internally, there are damaged or irritated nerves that can result in hypersensitivity, unwanted arousal, or pain.

“Most recent research indicates that even a herniated disk or tear in the spine can lead to clitoral or vulvar symptoms, just like sciatica pain that shoots down the leg is related to issues in the spine,” Dr. Krapf says.

Dr. Krapf was excited to read of a new discovery: The clitoris has more than 10,000 nerve fibers – 2,000 more than previously reported in 1976 – a medical breakthrough for a part of the body that has often been neglected by the scientific field. Dr. Krapf and other doctors are hopeful that the attention to the clitoris will spark more interest and comprehensive education among people in their field. They also hope it will empower patients to seek medical help if they are having issues with their clitoris.

“Female sexual health has historically been underfunded, especially compared with male sexual health, like erectile dysfunction,” Dr. Krapf says. “Optimizing vulvar and vaginal health is not only necessary for sexual well-being.”

Blair Peters, MD, a plastic surgeon who specializes in gender-affirming care, led the study, which was presented at the Sexual Medicine Society of North America conference in October. Dr. Peters says he hopes that the new information decreases stigma that the clitoris is not worthy of the same medical attention that other organs of the body receive.

When the clitoris doesn’t properly function, there can be harm to a person’s physical and mental health. Paying attention to discomfort in the clitoris, and seeking medical attention, can help catch and prevent some urinary and vaginal infections.

“The fact that it took until 2022 for someone to do this work speaks to how little attention the clitoris has received,” says Dr. Peters, an assistant professor of surgery at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, Portland.

What’s inside?

Dr. Peters and his colleagues completed the study by taking clitoral nerve tissue from seven adult transgender men who had received gender-affirming genital surgery. The tissues were dyed and magnified 1,000 times under a microscope so the researchers could count nerve fibers.

Dr. Peters says the finding is important because many surgeries take place in the groin region – like hip replacements, episiotomies during childbirth, and pelvic mesh procedures – and the revived attention to the clitoris may help health care providers know where nerves are so that injuries from medical mistakes are prevented.

“Nerves are at risk of damage if it’s not understood where they are at all times,” he says.

Dr. Peters hopes the new finding will help create new surgical techniques for nerve repair and offer insight for gender-affirming phalloplasty, which is the surgical construction of a penis often for transmasculine people.

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