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4 Common Issues That Can Occur with Sex While Having a Chronic Illness

Living with a chronic illness can impact many aspects of your life, including your sex life. While sex may not be the first thing that comes to mind when managing a chronic condition, it's an important part of overall well-being, intimacy, and quality of life. Unfortunately, various physical, emotional, and practical issues can arise that make sex and sexual intimacy challenging or uncomfortable for those dealing with chronic illnesses. In this comprehensive blog post, we'll explore four major problems and offer tips on how to navigate them.


Fatigue and Low Energy Levels

One of the most prevalent issues individuals with chronic illnesses face is persistent fatigue and low energy levels. A wide range of conditions like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, and more can leave you feeling constantly drained and depleted, making the physical exertion required for sex seem daunting or even impossible at times. This debilitating fatigue can quickly zap any sexual desire and make it difficult to become aroused or sustain intimacy.


To combat this energy drain, it's essential to listen to your body's needs and communicate openly with your partner. Try implementing some of these strategies:


  • Schedule sex for times when you typically have more energy, like mornings after a good night's sleep or after resting

  • Don't be afraid to take breaks during the act if needed to recover energy and catch your breath

  • Explore different sexual positions that require less physical effort, like spooning or face-to-face embraces

  • Incorporate more outercourse, foreplay, sensual touch, and massage to build intimacy without overexertion

  • Use pillows, wedges, or supportive furniture to reduce muscle strain in certain positions

  • Discuss taking turns pleasing each other if you get fatigued easily


The key is working within your energy limits, rather than pushing yourself too far.


Pain and Discomfort

Chronic pain is another extremely common issue that can make sex uncomfortable or even excruciatingly painful for those with certain illnesses. Conditions like endometriosis, arthritis, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel diseases, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, and more can cause persistent discomfort, achiness, or sharp pains in various areas of the body. This can make certain sexual positions, movements, or acts difficult or impossible without flaring up symptoms.


In these situations, it's crucial to prioritize your comfort and communicate openly with your partner about what feels good and what causes distress. Here are some tips:


  • Experiment with different sexual positions to find ones that minimize pain or pressure on sensitive areas

  • Use pillows, wedges, or supportive aids to take pressure off painful joints, muscles, or body parts

  • Don't be afraid to take breaks, stop, or switch activities if the pain becomes too much

  • Incorporate pain-relieving techniques like gentle stretching, warm baths/heating pads, or over-the-counter medications before sex

  • Use lubricants (water-based for vaginal dryness) to reduce friction and discomfort

  • Discuss alternatives like outercourse, massage, or mutual masturbation if penetration is too painful


Your partner's understanding and willingness to get creative within your limitations is key.


Medication Side Effects


Many medications used to treat chronic illnesses can have frustrating side effects that negatively impact sex drive, arousal, and overall sexual functioning. For example:


  • Antidepressants are notorious for causing decreased libido, difficulty achieving orgasm, and other sexual side effects

  • Certain medications for conditions like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or cancer can cause vaginal dryness or pain with penetration

  • Some blood pressure medications, chemotherapies, and opioid painkillers can contribute to erectile dysfunction in men

  • Hormone therapy medications may impact desire and arousal as well


If you suspect your medication is interfering with your sex life, don't hesitate to discuss this openly with your healthcare provider. They may be able to adjust your dosage, switch your prescription, or suggest methods to counteract side effects like:


  • Using lubricants or vaginal moisturizers for dryness

  • Taking a "drug holiday" to allow side effects to subside before intimacy

  • Prescribing erectile dysfunction medications like Viagra/Cialis

  • Recommending testosterone therapy for low libido

  • Considering alternative treatment options with fewer sexual side effects


Don't just suffer in silence - your doctor is there to help you maintain your quality of life.


Mental and Emotional Challenges

Living with a chronic illness can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being, which can, in turn, affect your sex life. Feelings of:


  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Low self-esteem

  • Body image issues


...can make it challenging to feel desire or enjoy intimacy.


In these cases, it's important to prioritize your mental health and seek support if needed:


  • Consider speaking with a therapist to work through emotional/psychological challenges

  • Join a support group to connect with others navigating similar experiences

  • Practice stress-reducing activities like yoga, meditation, or journaling

  • Open and honest communication with your partner can help foster understanding


Creating a safe, judgment-free environment for intimacy is key.


Other Considerations

Beyond the four main categories above, there are a few other factors that can complicate sex and intimacy for those with chronic illnesses:


  • Flare-ups, symptom exacerbations, and the general unpredictability of your condition can quickly derail even the best-laid plans for sexual activity

  • Some conditions may require special accommodations or avoiding certain positions/activities (e.g., a colostomy bag, indwelling catheter, etc.)

  • The physical and emotional toll of chronic illness can put immense strain on your relationship dynamic and sexual intimacy with your partner over time


The key is to remain flexible, keep communicating, and be willing to get creative to find what works best for you and your partner.


While navigating sex and intimacy with a chronic illness certainly presents its obstacles, it's an important aspect of overall well-being and quality of life that should not be overlooked or neglected. With some patience, creativity, self-compassion, and open communication, a satisfying sex life is still achievable even while managing chronic symptoms and limitations.


Remember, your health, comfort, and consent should always be the top priorities. Any adjustments or accommodations made in the bedroom should focus on minimizing pain, fatigue, medication side effects, and emotional distress. Maintaining sexual intimacy may require more planning and strategizing than most, but it's worth the effort.


The path ahead may have more twists and turns, but prioritizing your sexual needs can provide immense physical, emotional, and relational benefits. Don't be afraid to advocate for your pleasure by asking for help and guidance from doctors, therapists, counselors, or other trusted professionals. Sex ed and resources for chronic illness are lacking, but you have the power to navigate this aspect of your journey.


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