Sex and Rheumatoid Arthritis: Don’t Give It Up

Below is my recent post on Health Central.  I hope your Valentine’s Day is full of love and more!
“Throughout February, writers from many of HealthCentral’s communities are writing about sex, romance and the other relationships in your lives and how they interact with your condition. Check out our special Valentine’s Day area  – new posts will be added every week!”
Sex.  It is the topic rarely discussed in the rheumatoid arthritis community but something I feel is crucial to continuing a good relationship with your spouse and for your own well being.
I have been married to the same person for almost 24 years.  The relationship we enjoy today has been built on a genuine like for each other, an understanding of each other’s unique personalities, compromise, laughter, children, and sex.  In our 24 years together sex has always been an important contributor to our marriage as it draws us closer together in good times and bad.  Plus, it is just plain fun!
Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, Cathy, explain to me how I can incorporate sex into my relationship when I can barely get out of bed alone and/or need my partner to pull me out of the bathtub?”  I know, sex seems like the last thing you want to do.  You already feel unattractive and may even wonder how your partner can look at you with any sexual interest.  How we feel and look while living with an autoimmune illness may encourage us to back away from our partner and put sex on the back burner, but I plead with you to not let this happen.   Keep sex alive in your relationship.  Our disease and its many issues often keep us from having the relationship we once had with our partner, but like everything else about living with an illness, we can adapt and create a new path for ourselves that still includes love making.  The important thing to remember is that what we once had may not be the same, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still exist in some form to keep the intimacy in our relationships alive and thriving.
I think as with anything RA related, we have to figure out what will work for us in our current situation.  Sometimes we can do a lot and sometimes we can do very little.  Pick and choose from some of the items below or be creative and add your own.  You know your body best
 1.  Hold hands – Hand holding is a very simple yet gratifying experience that I see many relationships, with and without an illness to consider, abandon after courtship.  When dealing with a chronic disease, I find this simple act of love to be HUGE!  Although you may feel as if being touched is the last thing you want to do, please remember that your partner may still desperately crave your touch.  Many times hand holding for us has meant my husband gently grabbing hold of a few of my fingers while walking through the mall or when that is too painful, laying his hands gently on mine or mine on his as we watch a movie together.  Sometimes this simple act of touch rejuvenates me more than any amount of Advil could ever do.   
2.  Kissing – RA often brings pain to almost every joint in our bodies.  Luckily, there are no joints in our lips.  I recommend taking time to kiss your partner good bye in the morning and good night before heading to bed and of course at any other time of the day or night that it is appropriate.  And, if your neck and shoulders aren’t in too much pain, let the kissing go further.  This may not seem like much of a sex life, but we have to do what we can do.  Besides, I think kissing alone can add a little romance to the relationship.  Plus, just like any amount of movement is good for our body, any amount of physical touch with our partner is good.  I guarantee that if you can handle a passionate kiss good-bye in the morning, both of you will experience a “high” all day long.
3.  Body massage – There are of course many days that actually participating in sex is not doable.  A body massage from your partner is a simple alternative and a great way for the two of you to still connect.  Warning:  Remember to tell your partner ahead of time that you can only handle a massage!  
4.  Shower together – When I am experiencing a flare, the idea of undressing, lifting my legs over the tub, and then actually cleaning myself seems like such a chore.  However, when you have someone like a partner to help you with these chores, it is no longer a chore.    (Hey, we have to take any and all help we can get when experiencing pain/stiffness, so why not incorporate help with a little fun?)
5.  Be vocal – Let your partner know where you hurt and what you are capable of doing.  He/she wants to make this a pleasurable experience for you, but if you don’t share with him/her what is okay and not okay, how can he/she know?
6.  Be submissive – Let your partner take control.  If you are in pain or have a lot of stiff joints, let your partner do all the work.  Just sit back and enjoy.   
7.  Have fun!  Be spontaneous.  Let this be your chance to laugh with your partner, to feel passion with your partner, and to feel vulnerable with your partner. 
8.  Remember that you are more than RA.  You are an attractive, loving person with a lot to give your partner even while living with an illness.  Don’t hold onto what was in the past.  Live in the present and make this moment a moment to remember and hold onto.
Benefits of sex with RA:

1.  Asking for help dressing or undressing can be downright humiliating.  However, help undressing during sex it is a totally different story. 
2.  For me, the greatest benefit of having sex when RA is ruling my life is that it makes me feel beautiful.  Yes, there are times that I feel humiliated by what my body can’t do, but when my husband makes advances towards me, it reminds me that despite all that RA tries to take from my life, he still finds me not only sexually attractive, but beautiful.  I wouldn’t give up that feeling for anything.
3.  According to WEBMD, “Having sex once or twice a week has been linked with higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A or IgA, which can protect you from getting colds and other infections.”  It seems like fighting infections is a topic I hear over and over in the RA community.  Sex sounds like more fun than constantly using antibacterial soaps or avoiding time with friends in fear they might be sick. 
4.  WebMD also says that sex reduces pain. “As the hormone oxytocin surges, endorphins increase, and pain declines. So if your headache, arthritis pain, or PMS symptoms seem to improve after sex, you can thank those higher oxytocin levels.”  Next time you reach for that bottle of Advil, consider wooing your partner into a little sex and see if that takes care of the pain.  The Advil will always be there waiting for you.
5.  And as all of us with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune illness know, we need more sleep.  Sex does that too.  In this same article by WebMD, “The oxytocin released during orgasm also promotes sleep.” 
Wow, how can you not consider adding sex into your RA mix of healing therapies?  It’s full of so many benefits that I am wondering why my rheumatologist isn’t writing a prescription for it every time I see her.

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