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Rheumatoid Arthritis and Sex

The pain of RA does not have to mean the end of sexual intimacy.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Your sex life (or the lack of one) is probably not high on the list of topics when you're discussing your rheumatoid arthritis (RA) with your doctor. Even if you didn't have a ton of other topics to talk about, such as side effects of your medicines, morning stiffness and pain, and that promising new drug you just read about, talking about sex can be just plain embarrassing.

But the fact is one out of every three people with RA says that rheumatoid arthritis has had a considerable impact on their sexuality. And one out of every 10 people with RA says that sex is out of the question.

But the reason that people with RA often avoid sex has less to do with pain from achy joints associated with this autoimmune disease than the overwhelming fatigue and difficulty moving that are also hallmarks of the disease. That observation comes from research presented in 2006 at the 7th Annual European Congress of Rheumatology in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

But experts tell WebMD that improving your sex life -- and your intimate relationship -- is not only possible, but can also improve your arthritis symptoms.

"The good news," says Ava Cadell, PhD, "is that being intimate will take your mind off of everything else -- including your arthritis." Cadell is a clinical sexologist based in Los Angeles. "There is scientific evidence," she says, "that when you have an orgasm, you release morphine-like, feel-good chemicals that override the pain. Sex is the best prescription for good health."

Martin J. Bergman, MD, is chief of the division of rheumatology at Taylor Hospital in Ridley Park, Pa. He agrees with Cadell and adds, "Sexuality is part of the human experience -- a very important part."

Sex, Intimacy, and RA: Look at the Bigger Picture

"When we think of sex and sexuality," says Paul Dobransky, MD, "we often think of the physical." Dobransky is a Chicago-based psychiatrist and sex therapist and the author of several books including The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love. He tells WebMD that the one key for improving your sex life is to consider the emotional and cognitive parts of your relationship. Instead of only focusing on the physicality of sex, you should think about "the quality of friendship you have with your partner."

According to Dobransky, when you have a chronic illness such as RA, improving how you think and feel about your relationship can have a big impact on how sexual you feel. That, in turn, can enhance your sexual performance. It pays, he says, to work on the emotional part of your relationship.

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