CBS 5 INVESTIGATES (CBS 5) -- At 25 years old, Kate Orson was in a new relationship and excited about her partner. Three months into their relationship, she had a procedure to remove abnormal cells from her cervix. Kate says she immediately knew something changed inside her body.
"It was really painful. Like, all my insides felt kind of broken. And then I knew something was really wrong," Kate says. "I felt -- I just don't feel good in my body, and I don't feel like having sex. It was quite unusual. I had quite a high sex drive."
In addition to a lack of libido, when the couple did have sex, Kate could no longer enjoy the sensation of an orgasm.
"I could feel it in my body. Muscles contracting, but I couldn't feel any pleasure," says Kate.
Twelve years after the procedure, Kate started doing research and discovered she was not the only woman who suffered sexual dysfunction after undergoing the Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure, known as LEEP. She started the Facebook group Healing from LEEP/LLETZ, which now has thousands of members. Many women are reporting pain or problems with sex after the procedure.
LEEP is used to remove abnormal or pre-cancerous cells from the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. The debate is now gaining more attention centered around whether the procedure can cause sexual dysfunction in some women.
CBS 5 Investigates consulted Dr. Steven Nelson with Camelback Women's Health. As a gynecologist, he's been performing LEEP for nearly 30 years and calls it "potentially life-saving." During LEEP, an electrical wire is used to remove abnormal cells from the cervix.
"Imagine a cheese slicer. You push against the cheese, and it just slices through. The cheese comes out in a nice little slab," says Dr. Nelson. "What we're doing is we're putting the wire underneath the tissue, and it's electrified. As it sweeps underneath the tissue, it cuts its way through and seals the blood vessels underneath."
One advantage of LEEP is that it allows the tissue to be examined for cancer. However, Dr. Nelson warns the procedure has been overused, and the amount of tissue removed, depends on the doctor.
"I've seen people that have had LEEP, and the surface looks normal," says Dr. Nelson. "But I've certainly seen others who have had LEEP procedures, and you can tell there's a big hole somebody took."
Removing too much tissue can weaken a woman's cervix and cause complications during pregnancy. However, the doctor questions the allegations on the procedure leading to sexual dysfunction by damaging nerves in the cervix.
"In my opinion, I really don't see the nerve connection. I've seen the articles that indicate there's nerve tissue. We know there are nerves because the cervix is sensitive, but whether or not those nerves are part of sexual response, I think is questionable," Dr. Nelson says. "There may be other things that are going on in these patients that may be affecting their perception of their sexual response. Sexual response is extremely subjective, with a lot of psychological overlay."
While the cervix is not typically viewed as an erogenous zone or having a role in sexual response, the growing number of women reporting sexual dysfunction after LEEP is capturing the attention of researchers. Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a specialist in sexual medicine, believes the LEEP can lead to sexual dysfunction by damaging the nerves.
"Your cervix is a sexual organ. In some women, it participates in their sexual pleasure and enjoyment," Dr. Goldstein says.
A study published earlier this year examined the role of the cervix in sexual response and the possible effects of LEEP.
Dr. Goldstein says the cervix is filled with nerves that can sense pressure. During sex, in some women, the pressure sends a signal to the brain, which elicits a sense of pleasure. He says damaging the nerves by slicing through the tissue, can cut off the woman's ability to feel that sense of pleasure, and it may lead to overall sexual dysfunction.
Dr. Goldstein is not pushing for doctors to stop doing LEEP. Yet, he believes women need to be warned about possible physical and emotional risks.
"I'm going to presume you go to a doctor for what you would consider a benign procedure, and you wake up, and your entire sexual function is taken from you. I'm going to ask you, 'Would you be depressed about that?' The average person would say 'yes,'" Dr. Goldstein explains.
Kate is now happily married to the man she was dating at the time she had LEEP and feels lucky to have an understanding partner. More than a decade later, she still has trouble getting aroused and feels the procedure cut out a part of who she was.
"You can never go back to being that happy, carefree person enjoying sex because you're always worried about pain," Kate describes.
While she enjoys sex with her husband, she says she has to put a lot of effort into what used to come naturally.
"I can't get myself in the mood for sex as often as I used to. It's just devastating. I feel lucky compared to some of the stories I hear," says Kate.
As tough as it is to speak about her sexual dysfunction after years of feeling isolated, she wants other women who experienced problems after LEEP to know they are not alone.