Human Clitoris Has at Least 10,281 Nerve Fibers
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Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) have conducted a study quantifying the nerves in human clitoral tissue. The study was presented at the joint meeting of the Sexual Medicine Society of North America and the International Society for Sexual Medicine.*
The “seat of pleasure”
The human clitoris is the only known human organ that exists for the purpose of providing pleasure. For many, this attribute is considered a crucial factor contributing to the lack of research surrounding its physiology.
Anatomy of the clitoris
The clitoris comprises both internal and external components. Its highly sensitive tip – the clitoral glans – is located externally, protected by a “hood” of skin. Internally, the clitoral glans is connected to the “body” of the clitoris, which projects upwards into the pelvis and is attached to the pubic bone via ligaments. The body of the clitoris splits in half to form the paired “cruca” of the clitoris (often referred to as the “legs” of the organ), and the vestibular bulbs.
The clitoris is innervated by the dorsal nerve, which travels on top of the clitoral shaft and runs down either side of the cruca. Nerves are bundles of fibers called axons, which carry the communicative signals of the nervous system, transmitting information to and from the brain to different parts of the body, such as the clitoris.
A picture showing the internal anatomy of the human vulva, focusing on the anatomy and location of the clitoris. Credit: Amphis. Labels added by Technology Networks.
The clitoris is considered an erogenous zone because its stimulation induces a sense of pleasure. A high concentration of nerve endings in the clitoris mean that it is one of the more sensitive erogenous zones of the body. Exactly how many nerve endings can be found here has been debated. Previously, the figure was pinned at 8,000. However, new research from Dr. Blair Peters, assistant professor of surgery at the OHSU School of Medicine and a plastic surgeon who specializes in gender-affirming care, suggests it is higher.
Peters collected nerve tissue from one side of the dorsal nerve clitoral tissue in seven adult transmasculine patients undergoing gender-affirming genital surgery. The tissue samples were dyed and magnified so that the individual nerve fibers could be quantified using image analysis software.
Approximately 5,140 dorsal nerve fibers were counted, a figure that was doubled to account for the symmetry of the dorsal nerve, giving 10,281 nerve fibers in total. Considering that there are other, smaller nerves innervating the clitoris, Peters says it’s highly possible that the total figure is higher still.
“It’s startling to think about more than 10,000 nerve fibers being concentrated in something as small as the clitoris,” Peters said. “It’s particularly surprising when you compare the clitoris to other, larger structures of the human body. The median nerve, which runs through the wrist and hand and is involved in carpal tunnel syndrome, is known for having high nerve fiber density. Even though the hand is many, many times larger than the clitoris, the median nerve only contains about 18,000 nerve fibers, or fewer than two times the nerve fibers that are packed into the much-smaller clitoris.”
Did you know?
The anatomist Renaldus Columbus is often credited with “discovering” the clitoris in 1559. He regarded the organ as being the “seat of pleasure” and hinted to the fact it contains erectile tissue. However, the work of Professor Helen O'Connell is praised for “rewriting” the textbooks on the human clitoris. O’Connell, professor of urology at the University of Melbourne and director of the urology department of the Western Health in the Australian state of Victoria, is praised for being the ”first to outline the external and internal structure of the clitoris” in 1998. However, some argue that the structure was already known, it was just named differently.
The research findings will be used by Peters to enhance the outcomes of phalloplasty surgery, whereby a penis is created for transmasculine patients. He envisions that the results can help to improve the experience of sensation in patients, as decisions regarding the re-connection of nerves to specific tissues can be better informed during the surgery.
“Better understanding the clitoris can help everyone, regardless of their gender identity, but it’s important to acknowledge this research is only possible because of gender-affirming surgeries and transgender patients,” Peters said. “There’s something profound about the fact that gender-affirming care becoming more commonplace also benefits other areas of health care. A rising tide lifts all boats. Oppressing or limiting transgender health care will harm everyone.”
*This article is based on research findings that are yet to be peer-reviewed. Results are therefore regarded as preliminary and should be interpreted as such. Find out about the role of the peer review process in research here. For further information, please contact the cited source.
This article is a rework of a press release issued by Oregon Health and Science University. Material has been edited for length and content.