Conversations about sex often focus on the fun and steamy side. That’s great! It’s also really important to talk about the not-fun parts of sex — the stuff that gets in the way of experiencing pleasure — and what we can do about it. For people who experience chronic pain, enjoying sex can sometimes be challenging.
What is chronic pain?
About 20 percent of individuals in the general population experience chronic pain of some kind. But how do you know when something is chronic pain and not just, well… pain? There are a few differences.
The definition of chronic pain is any pain that lasts for more than three months. The pain can be continuous or can occur every so often.
Additionally, humans tend to experience pain when there is imminent or actual damage to the body. These pain signals stop when the body is no longer injured or in danger of being injured. However, when you have chronic pain, these pain signals persist even when there is no immediate injury to the body. The pain may have originated with an injury, but chronic pain continues well past the initial damage and may last for months or years. Some of the more commonly experienced types of chronic pain are back pain, headaches, nerve damage, and secondary pain associated with a primary disease like cancer or arthritis. However, there are many types of chronic pain. You might experience chronic pain and not even know it! For example, chronic fatigue and recurring, severe menstrual cramps are both forms of chronic pain.
Chronic pain can be a real wet blanket on your libido…
If you suffer from chronic pain, you might find that pain negatively impacts your sex life. In fact, 50 to 80 percent of individuals with chronic pain feel that it causes problems in their sex life. Chronic pain can cause all sorts of obstacles to enjoying your sexuality. For example, certain positions may aggravate the pain. Pain might reduce your libido. Fear of experiencing pain may cause you to avoid sexual stimulation.
Chronic pain can also impact your self-image and how confident you feel in your own body. It can be difficult to feel sexy when you’re experiencing discomfort. These are all common feelings for people who live with chronic pain. In fact, between 35 and 40 percent of people with chronic pain stop engaging in any type of sexual activity at all.
Combating pain with pleasure
Despite pain acting as a barrier to sexual pleasure, sexual pleasure can also be a key for reducing chronic pain. You might already know that masturbation has the potential to reduce stress, improve sleep, and help soothe menstrual cramps, but did you know that self-stimulation can also help you to manage chronic pain? Yes please to more solo sex health benefits!
A few different studies, mostly conducted by Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk, have shown that when vulva owners self-stimulate the clitoris and the vagina, pain tolerance increases. This means that when you are experiencing sexual pleasure, you feel less pain. Whipple and Komisaruk showed that when masturbating, vulva owners’ pain tolerance increase about 40 percent. When those same vulva owners masturbated to orgasm, their pain tolerance increased 74 percent! These effects lasted throughout the sexual experience and for a few minutes after orgasm.
Not only can masturbation temporarily make you a pain-immune superhero but it could also help boost your confidence and actual sex technique. It’s really common for people living with chronic pain to worry about their own sexual performance and ability to orgasm. Here’s where masturbation is, again, a great tool. A 1991 study showed that women who masturbated had higher overall sexual satisfaction and ability to reach orgasm that women who didn’t masturbate. This may be because masturbation can help you to identify what sensations feel most pleasurable for you and it helps you to practice coming. This is a great time to stick to the philosophy that practice makes perfect.
Additionally, masturbation may help with managing the mental health side-effects of chronic pain. Chronic pain can cause depression because when you suffer from chronic pain, you are in a constant state of stress and discomfort. Up to 85 percent of people living with chronic pain also suffer from depression. Though research has not shown whether masturbation can actually cure or significantly reduce depression, we do know that orgasms release dopamine and oxytocin that help you to feel euphoric and good. This too could offer at least some temporary relief from the heaviness of depressive moods.
Try it out!
So how can you begin incorporating these concepts into your own sex life? A great place to start is with your own hands or with a sex toy that can adapt to your sensory needs in the moment.
If you experience chronic pain, particularly in the lower back and pelvis, certain types of sexual stimulation may be painful. You might have days when vaginal penetration feels good and can help to stimulate and reduce tension in internal pelvic muscles. However, there may be days when penetration is too intense and you prefer to concentrate sexual stimulation on the clitoris.
Remember, learning to manage chronic pain is often a journey where you test out different strategies and find out what works for you. It can be frustrating when you’re looking for solutions and can’t seem to get the results you want.
Be compassionate with yourself and know that with time, community, and the right resources, it’s totally possible to increase your pleasure and build the relationship with sexuality that you desire.