Has a doctor ever advised, “Go home and make love frequently”? Probably not. But for the estimated 35 million American adults with persistent joint pain, this prescription makes perfect sense. Sex is surprisingly therapeutic for aching joints.
Mention “joint pain,” and people think “arthritis,” which many believe strikes only older adults. Actually, you don’t have to be eligible for Medicare to suffer it. There are dozens of types of arthritis, but the most prevalent is osteoarthritis (OA). Many young people suffer it as a result of athletic injuries, joint trauma (notably bike and car accidents), repetitive strain (keyboarding), family history, and plain old bad luck. But OA becomes increasingly common with age. It’s a rare person over 50 who doesn’t suffer some OA-related pain and stiffness.
Joints are lined with shock-absorbing cartilage that keeps the bones from grinding into each other. In osteoarthritis, cartilage breaks down, causing stiffness and pain, possibly swelling, and reduced range of motion. Symptoms are worst in the morning, then typically improve with movement during the day. In addition to aging, OA risk increases with weight, a history of joint injury, and repetitive strain.
Sex to the Rescue
To manage OA, doctors advise low-impact exercise that gently moves joints through their full range of motion: walking, gardening, swimming, biking, in-pool calisthenics—and sex.
“Sex is terrific for arthritis,” says Palo Alto sex therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D. “It involves gentle, range-of-motion exercise, which minimizes pain and inflammation. It also releases endorphins, the body’s own pain-relievers. Sex strengthens the muscles around the major joints, which helps support them. And it’s mood-elevating, which also helps relieve pain.”
How to Incorporate Sex into OA Self-Care
• Make sex dates. Living with any chronic condition requires lifestyle adjustments and planning. Scheduling sex allows you to prepare in advance, perhaps with gentle stretching, or by making love in the afternoon or evening when symptoms are less problematic.
• Exercise beforehand. Be active together. Take a walk. Go dancing. Cook together. Work in your yard. Any exercise helps lubricate the joints, which helps manage OA, and spending quality nonsexual time together before making love deepens emotional intimacy.
• Bathe or shower beforehand. Heat soothes the joints. It’s also relaxing, which helps prepare the mind and body for sex.
• Take your medicine. Consider pre-sex pain medication. If you feel only pain and/or stiffness, acetaminophen (Tylenol) often helps. If you experience joint inflammation, try an anti-inflammatory pain reliever—aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), or naproxen (Aleve). But beware, heavy long-term use of acetaminophen may cause liver damage, and chronic use of the others may cause gastrointestinal distress and ulcers.
• Move your whole body. Don’t limit yourself to pelvic gyrations by rushing into intercourse. The best exercise for OA management moves all the major joints through their full range of motion: the fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, back, hips, knees, and ankles. Touch each other all over. Gently massage the muscles around each other’s major joints. Stretch to reach your partner’s scalp and feet. Whole-body sex not only helps manage OA, it’s also the kind of lovemaking experts recommend for optimal erotic satisfaction.
• Play with toys. OA stiffens many people’s fingers, which can make impair your ability to provide loving caresses. Vibrators often help.
• Make adjustments. OA often stiffens the knees. If either of you has knee problems, experiment with pillows and sexual positions to minimize knee strain.
• Check in. Alert one another to positions and moves that hurt. Focus on ones that don’t.
• Remain sexual. Some people think: I’m in pain. Pain ruins sex. Therefore, I can’t have sex. Others think: I’m in pain, but I’m a sexual person. I’ll adjust to remain as sexual as possible under the circumstances. OA experts recommend the latter approach.
• If arthritis continues to interfere with your lovemaking, a sex therapist can suggest individualized accommodations to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology.
• Finally, if pain persists and these suggestions don’t provide sufficient relief, consider joint replacement. Jose A. Rodriguez, M.D., director of the Center for Joint Preservation and Reconstruction at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York surveyed 147 people with severe osteoarthritis, most of whom reported sexual impairment and dissatisfaction. But after joint replacement, 81 percent reported increased sexual frequency and enjoyment.