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Sex and Arthritis: A New Kind of Reach

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

As we age, few of us escape periodic (or not-so-periodic) joint pain. While it may be possible to work around occasional pain and stiffness in a knee or elbow, when arthritis is constantly painful and potentially debilitating, everyday activities become newly challenging.

When replacing the cap on the toothpaste requires effort, having intercourse with our partner may seem like reaching for the moon. But just as we find new ways to replace caps and button blouses, we can reach for new ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. This may demand effort, experimentation, and communication, but the effort may also pay off in a deeper and more satisfying level of intimacy.

Here’s what leading rheumatologists and orthopedists have to say:

Be compassionate with yourself and your partner. Arthritis is painful, and pain is exhausting. Further, medications for arthritis may cause vaginal dryness and fatigue. Rest, patience, and vaginal lubricants can help.

Communicate. Your partner needs to understand the emotional and physical changes you’re experiencing, and you need to understand how your partner feels. Maybe you don’t feel sexy. Maybe your partner is afraid of hurting you during intercourse. It may help to begin the dialog in front of a doctor or other professional who can direct the conversation and also suggest possible remedies. Keep in mind that silence often looks a lot like rejection.

Plan ahead. Like other activities, a vital sex life will take more planning.

  • Schedule a “sex date” for a time of day when you tend to feel good.
  • Rest during the day—take a nap and avoid overexertion.
  • Take pain meds when they’re likely to be effective, about half an hour before your “date.”
  • Enjoy a warm bath (maybe with your partner) or use an electric blanket or heating pad to relax joints.
  • Do range-of-motion exercises to increase flexibility.
  • Look forward to the special time. Wear something sexy.

Experiment. Good sex leaves you and your partner feeling intimate, connected, and sexually satisfied, and there are many ways to skin this particular cat. Try new positions that take the pressure off painful areas and allow your partner to do more of the motion. Try using pillows for support or cushioning. Try massage or other loving touch. Oral sex or manual stimulation can be pleasurable. If your hands are affected, try using a vibrator on sensitive areas—the clitoris and the underside of the penis. Let your partner know what feels good—and what doesn’t. In fact, agree upon a signal that will stop the action if you experience pain.

When you have arthritis, life happens at a different pace—more tortoise than hare. But we all know how that story ended. As long as you keep moving, you’re winning.

1 comment

  • I like all the suggestions put forth in this article. The most important thing I believe is the communication. If you are able to communicate with you partner there are very few physical obstacles that cannot be overcome with a little talking and a little creativity.

    Sex Education With A Holistic Twist John Lawless on

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