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Sexuality is an integral part of being human. It is linked to our quality of life and self-identity. Yet, living with the pain, stiffness, fatigue, limited movement, decreased strength and depression associated with arthritis can reduce our ability for sexual expression and enjoyment.
Aspects of arthritis which can cause problems that affect your sexuality include:
Studies have shown that the higher the levels of pain, physical disability and depression, the greater the effect on sexuality, regardless of gender. Those affected by some forms of rheumatic disease, including lupus, fibromyalgia, scleroderma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome,ankylosing spondylitis, Raynaud’s phenomenon and juvenile arthritis also may experience:
Medications used in the treatment of arthritis do not appear to affect sexual functioning. However, some cases of erectile impotence have been reported in persons treated with methotrexate, sulfasalazine, or hydroxychloroquine. Other drugs may interfere with libido (for example, cimetidine, diclofenac, misoprostol, and naproxen). Loss of desire and difficulty with orgasm also are common side effects of antidepressant medications.
Sex is not simply about reaching rapid orgasm with a partner. A slower approach can prove satisfying for partners who share mutual respect, care, trust and love. Exploring ways of returning pleasure can build excitement and intimacy. Begin overcoming potential barriers by letting your partner know if something is uncomfortable as well as what is particularly pleasurable.
While arthritis rarely affects the sexual organs themselves, the physical effects of the disease also can have an emotional impact on sexual relations. A change in appearance, weight gain or loss, or a decrease in mobility or energy can affect self-esteem and self-image. The person with arthritis may feel less desirable or more fragile. The fear of pain can prompt anxiety that makes it difficult to relax and enjoy sex or cause sexual partners to worry about causing pain.
Address the emotional effects openly and honestly with your partner. Express your fears with statements like “I am afraid that …” This provides your partner with the chance to reassure and support you. Also, talking about these fears early on allows you to let go. Remember, one partner’s discomfort or fears may be misread as rejection by the other, causing greater distance and emotional pain.
If talking is too sensitive initially, consider writing a note to your partner to express your fears or concerns. Talking openly about the sentiments expressed in your letter is often an easier next step.
Psychological well-being and social support contribute more to a fulfilling sexual life than does the condition of arthritis. By separating the limitations of pain from sexual self-confidence, you can take a more practical approach to the changes brought about by arthritis.
Plan Ahead for Sex: Keep fatigue or stiffness from getting in the way of pleasurable sexual activity by thinking about the times of day you are likely to be more rested. For instance, if you experience morning stiffness, the afternoon or evening are probably better times for sex. To put you more at ease, consider:
Women with arthritis may experience vaginal dryness, making manual stimulation uncomfortable or penetrative sex painful. This can be relieved by water-based lubricating gels. Never use petroleum-based products.
Be Creative and Communicative: Discussing the issue of sex and arthritis may be uncomfortable for you and/or your partner. In some cases, it may even make your doctor uncomfortable to discuss it. Don’t let this discomfort stand in the way of your enjoying a fulfilling sex life despite your arthritis. Consult with your physician when you have medical concerns.
Talk openly with your partner to find the positions and techniques that give both of you the most amount of pleasure with the least amount of discomfort. With a little creativity, patience, and planning, individuals affected by arthritis can discover and rediscover the pleasures of sexual intimacy.
Reviewed April 2015. Written by Amye L. Leong, MBA, and reviewed by the American College of Rheumatology Communications and Marketing Committee.
This information is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of a medical or health condition.
© 2015 American College of Rheumatology