Good news: Getting busy if you have arthritis can mean feeling better
Arthritis affects one in four women in various forms. Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is the result of joint cartilage wearing down over time. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, is also more common in women than men. While doctors and researchers seem to concur that female hormones impact the immune system, the reason why RA affects women more than men is still unclear. Those who suffer from arthritis experience painful, swollen and tender joints, fatigue, fever, and decreased joint function, among other symptoms.
The reality that those with chronic pain live with underscores that what is straightforward for some necessitates tricky navigation for others, but in no way does it remove activities, like sex, off the table. In reality, sex and orgasms can do much to relieve pain and stress, because of the hormones released during sex.
The double-edged sword exists because while sex may alleviate pain, the pain associated with chronic diseases can be debilitating.
“Sex can help remind us that we are more than our illnesses,” says Kirsten Schultz, a sexuality educator living with RA and founder of Chronic Sex, an online space (there’s also a podcast) for discussion on sex, chronic illness, and relationships.
In addition to being an opportunity to improve your quality of life, sex is also a form of low-impact exercise that can actually help relieve symptoms of arthritis. “Regular sex will help keep joints limber, and, over time, the act should become easier and more comfortable,” says Dr Annette Owens, co-founder of the Sexual Health Network. The key, of course, is finding what works for you, and then communicating with sexual partners so you can get the most out of sexual experiences.
“A lot of people get hung up on a 1950’s view of sex and forget how varied sexual activity can be,” Schultz says. “It’s not just limited to penetrative heterosexual sex – it can start with a massage or include a toy or sex furniture. Kissing, itself, when done well and right, can be an extremely invigorating form of sexual activity.” Schultz recommends scheduling sex based on when you know you might be feeling well, after medication if possible.
Logan Levkoff is a sex and relationship expert who has written several articles about living with arthritis and chronic pain for Arthritis.com. She emphasized the importance of intentional communication when talking about pain.
“When you don’t live in someone else’s body, you don’t have their experience,” she told HelloFlo. “A lot of the work of talking about pain is recognizing that the words we use might not translate, so use ‘I’ statements, and take ownership of the fact that people might hear something different than how you meant it.”
There are certainly circumstances in which sex with arthritis can be made more optimal – turning things that alleviate pain into ways of achieving intimacy with a partner, such as baths or massage, experimenting with sex positions when you’re feeling up for it, which brings it back to the vital nature of communication. Says Levkoff, “There is a difference between saying ‘I don’t want to,’ and ‘I physically cannot.'”
As women, we’re warned against being too needy or emotional, and so we’re often reticent to talk about our pain or admit that we’re experiencing it. Creating genuinely intentional and empathetic space for folks to talk openly about pain, can improve not only our mental health, but our physical health as well. “As a female living with RA, I can say that my husband’s biggest complaint is that I don’t share enough about when I’m in pain,” says Schultz. “I tend to hide my pain or struggle with admitting my pain. Working on communication, though, has very much improved how my relationship is affected by my RA.”