How to enjoy a fulfilling sex life while living with arthritis

Jul 10, 2024
An expert shares her top tips for managing arthritis pain and maintaining a healthy sex life. Source: Getty Images.

Millions of people around the world are impacted by arthritis and with more than 100 different types causing pain, stiffness, tenderness and swelling of the joints, it can significantly limit a person’s mobility and impact their daily routine.

While sex is a topic people may not feel comfortable discussing, the reality is that arthritis can also negatively affect a person’s sex life, with the emotional and physical side effects of the condition often leaving people fearing intimacy and unable to spice things up in the bedroom.

Medical sex therapist Dr Margaret Redelman OAM tells Starts at 60 that arthritis impacts people in lots of different ways and that in addition to pain and limitation of movement, chronic fatigue can also get in the way of intimacy. She says: “If you’re feeling tired and in pain, it’s not a very erotic state to be in and that impacts on being able to get into an erotic state and to focus and stay in an erotic state. So you might start out being aroused and then the pain impacts and that switches you off.”

While it’s highly unlikely for arthritis to impact the genitals directly, it’s often the emotional aspects of the condition that impact a person’s sex life, with Redelman describing the mind as “the biggest sex organ”. For example, the condition can cause physical changes to the body and some people become embarrassed about their body image, which leads them to feel uncomfortable when making love, awkward when they’re taking their clothes off or feeling uneasy when their partner touches them.

“Arthritis can affect your physical appearance and the self-esteem that goes with body image,” Redelman says, noting that arthritis can also result in depression which can also cause people to withdraw from sex and other social activities with their partners.

Other people fear that having sex will hurt or make their arthritis worse and while it’s true that some types of physical activity can cause discomfort, the key is to have sex that suits your individual needs. It’s about working within your limitations and avoiding activity that is going to aggravate your arthritis further.

Some women will find that certain positions aren’t good for their back, joint or hip pain, while some men simply find it hard to support their weight on their arms or knees because of the pain. Figuring out the best position for you and your partner may even reduce some pain.

“It’s very interesting because orgasm actually has a modality which is pain relieving,” Redelman says. “Good love making is something where both you and your partner are sensitive and responsive to the needs of both of you.”

One way to reduce the risk of pain or fatigue is to plan sex with your partner and prepare your body properly. This could be as simple as deciding on a time that suits both of you and taking pain medication or anti-inflammatories beforehand to combat any pain. It may also be warming up the room or taking a hot bath or shower to reduce any inflammation.

“Prepare yourself so that you’re helping your body be able to function the best that it can. I find the concept of being spontaneous and natural a little bit unnatural,” Redelman says. “Two people in a busy, modern life have to plan for sex because if one wants it at 12 o’clock on Tuesday, the other might want it at 5 o’clock on Wednesday.”

She also says that intercourse isn’t the only way for people to get intimate and that if penetrative sex is too painful or uncomfortable, try experimenting in the bedroom with outercourse.

“Your hands and mouth are much more responsive and sensitive than a penis will be,” Redelman explains. “If you find it difficult to become aroused or climax, using a vibrator or a toy is a really good adjunct.”

It’s also important to focus on the things you can do, rather than what you can’t and talking to your GP, gynaecologist or psychologist about what will work for your individual circumstances. According to Redelman, it’s important that people don’t start seeing their partners as asexual friends as this can make it harder to reignite sexual activity if it’s stopped.

“The most important thing is to keep being sexual to what whatever level you can. Just don’t stop,” she says. “It’s about being positive.”

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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