Sexual Wellness Resource Center
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Arthritis and Sexuality

Arthritis and Sexuality
By Michael Bates, M.D.

Arthritis is one of the most common chronic illnesses. As many as 35 million Americans suffer from the condition.

First, what are the different types of arthritis?

There are many different types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

  • Osteoarthritis is the most common. This is classic “wear and tear” arthritis.  The cartilage lining and cushioning of the joints break down in some with age and use, causing pain, stiffening and swelling. Contributing factors are excess weight, injury and overuse.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. The body’s immune system malfunctions and mistakenly attacks the joints. The resulting inflammation causes pain, swelling, loss of joint mobility and can lead to joint deformity.  This inflammation also causes flu-like symptoms with low fever, fatigue and loss of appetite.

  • Gout has historically been known as the “disease of kings” or “rich man’s disease” because it is more common in those who eat a diet rich in meat, drink a lot of alcohol, or are overweight. It is a form of inflammatory arthritis that develops in some with high uric acid blood levels. This can provoke the formation of needle-like crystals in the joint and subsequent acute, severe joint pain, tenderness, redness and swelling. An attack can be triggered by excessive intake of rich food and/or alcohol. The joint in the big toe is the most commonly affected, but the ankle and knee joints can also be attacked.

The particular kind of arthritis you have has to be diagnosed and treated by your doctor. Treatment alleviates the acute symptoms of pain and swelling and reduces joint deterioration. However, chronic low grade pain and limited mobility persist in some people.

Can sex and intimacy actually help with arthritis relief?

It turns out that a prescription of “make love as needed” might be just what the doctor ordered.  

Common medical advice includes low-impact exercise, such as walking, swimming, biking, pool exercises—anything that gently moves the joints through the full range of motion.  

Well, how about the exercise associated with love making? Gentle rhythmic pelvic movement strengthens pelvic joints. Orgasm releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers and mood elevators.

Here are some tips for satisfying sex with arthritis.

Here are some ways for you and your partner to maintain and even enhance your sexual satisfaction:

  • Plan sex for the afternoon or evening when the symptoms seem to be less.
  • Take a warm bath or shower together. Heat soothes the joints, and being naked together gets you in the mood.
  • Gently massage each other’s joints and erogenous zones. Tell each other what feels good and what hurts.
  • Experiment with pillows and positions.
  • Take a toy to bed. Vibrators can help with caressing if the fingers are stiff.

What is the take home message?

  • Sex is good for people with arthritis. Physical intimacy is extremely important for everyone, maybe more so for those living with arthritis.
  • A satisfying sex life is one way of feeling normal when so much has changed.
  • Take your medication.
  • Communicate, involve your physician, be creative and explore new avenues of physical intimacy.

This is the second article in our series on chronic illness and sexuality, with more to come. We’d like to hear from you what topics you’d like us to cover. Let us know on our Ask the Experts page.

References

About the Author

Michael Bates, M.D.

Dr Bates practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 34 years in Wichita, Kansas, until his retirement in 2011.

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