How do people with chronic pain and their partners maintain a healthy, exciting sex life?
Chronic Pain: Stop it from Sucking the Fun Out of Your Sex Life
by Kal Cobalt
Though chronic pain has become a more medically-recognized condition, whether as a complication of another diagnosis or an unexplained phenomenon existing by itself, one frontier remains: How do people with chronic pain and their partners maintain a healthy, exciting sex life?
“Chronic” And “Pain” May Not Be What You Think They Are
We’ve come a long way in understanding the problem of chronic pain. Fewer doctors dismiss the issue, and most of us know someone who suffers from it for one reason or another. But there’s still plenty of confusion about what chronic pain actually is, and there’s certainly no pat way to handle it thanks to the variety of how our bodies have trouble. Explaining chronic pain is often difficult and sometimes impossible, even if you ask a chronic pain sufferer to do it.
Take me, for example. It may be hard to believe, but I didn’t even know I’ve had lifelong chronic pain until a few months ago. Between a high pain tolerance and a tendency to assume that physical things I experience are normal, I figured everyone’s shoulders burned by the end of most days and sudden, incapacitating back spasms were what people meant by “lower back ache.” Everyone has everyday aches, to be sure, but for someone like me who worked normally with a dislocated rib for a month and has walked around on a partially dislocated hip without painkillers, I’m hardly able to put myself on the 1-to-10 pain scale appropriately.
While some parts of my situation are unusual, most of us with chronic pain share the inability to tell what is “normal” and what is not, we deal with inconclusive and confusing attempts to help from the medical community, and many of us have perfectly good days (or even weeks or months) before chronic pain comes unexpectedly knocking once more. As you can imagine, all of this can make sexual encounters the not-so-fun kind of roulette.
Do Ask, And Do Tell!
Rule #1 of any relationship should be honesty, but this goes double for intimate situations involving people with chronic pain. If your partner has a chronic pain condition you’ve heard of, remember that everyone’s experience of pain is unique. You need to ask about your specific partner’s experience of pain and what specific triggers you can avoid when you’re between the sheets. Similarly, if you have chronic pain, your chances of enjoying some pain-free nookie increase dramatically when you can articulate what you know about your condition.
Since chronic pain is hard even for doctors to pinpoint, you can expect that no matter how thorough your conversation is, it can’t cover everything, but discussing what you can beforehand can help hugely in the moment. For example, I’m extra flexible, which is great fun in bed — but my hips and back can seize up or go out if you look at them sideways. I explain this to my partners and tell them that if it happens, I will yell “HIPS!” and they should stop everything, without trying to move me even if I’m in a funny position. And then, of course, I give them a wink and a nod and explain that if I shout anything that isn’t “HIPS!” they should absolutely keep going, heh heh. (There’s no reason why The Pain Talk can’t be foreplay. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
Communicating When Bodies Don’t
It’s hard sometimes to know if pain will derail a date. On Tuesday, I might be able to put my ankle behind my head, and on Wednesday, getting out of the car can be an ordeal. The cuffs used to spread-eagle me on the bed might feel sexy and comfortable when they go on, and five minutes later my back will stage a full-on revolt — or worse, my back will give me the “just a warning, I’m about to make your life a living hell” twinge and I’ll ignore it because whips and chains and mouths are a whole lot more fun to concentrate on.
No amount of communication can prevent every flare-up, but simple check-ins from time to time between partners can go a long way. While it might break the mood to ask or be asked “How is your chronic pain with what I just did?” (well, unless you’re into medical scenes…), checking in doesn’t have to be that explicit. My household deals with a variety of chronic pain complaints, and over time we’ve come to learn one another’s signals. We more or less operate under the “if you see something, say something” rule (or maybe I just think about it that way because Big Brother is a hot fantasy) — if someone stiffens up in a funny way, or makes an unusual noise, or a limb that often causes pain is in an awkward position, that’s cause to ask a question in a non-invasive way. If you’ve laid the groundwork for communication, simply asking “Is it good?” or “You okay?” or “how’s that arm?” should be enough to bring a partner’s attention to the potential problem without bringing the lovin’ to a screeching halt.
There are a million wedges, pillows, vibrators, and toys on the market that can make sex a more pain-free experience, and as long as they’re used in conjunction with communication instead of as a weak replacement, they’re fantastic! Here are a few to look into.
Wedge pillows made specifically for sex help take stress off joints and muscle groups. (Stacked pillows will do in a pinch, but be careful not to fall over!)
A body pillow can turn spoon-style sex into a delightfully cozy experience.
Wrist cuffs made for suspension, which take the stress off the delicate bones of the wrist, can be used in “normal” (heh) bondage situations with the same benefits, and nearly every restraint can now be purchased with padding or extra-wide for happier joints.
A blanket over the top half of the body can keep someone with temperature sensitivity warm while you’re busy with their bottom half.
Many dildos are available extra-long or with curved handles to help reach your best bits without stressing shoulders.
Most lubricants are available in pump bottles for stiff hands and fingers.
Heat packs, mentholated rubs, Epsom salt baths, and other common treatments for pain can be sexed up with a little imagination. Creativity is pain’s enemy — go for it!