Arthritis Pain, Intimacy, and Sex

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on March 11, 2014
4 min read

If you have arthritis, there are plenty of reasons why you might not feel like having sex. Painful or stiff joints and limited mobility may make sex seem more like a chore than a pleasure. You may feel self conscious about changes in your body. Or you may simply feel too fatigued at the end of the day to think about anything more than getting a good night’s sleep.

But having arthritis doesn’t have to mean an end to your sex life. Sex is an important part of our identity. It lets us connect more intimately with our partner and helps us feel good about ourselves -- physically and emotionally. With a little bit of patience, good communication, and some creativity, you can continue to have an active and pleasurable sex life, even with arthritis. Arthritis experts suggest these five ways to improve intimacy.

If you’re feeling tired and sore at the end of the day, it’s probably not the best time to have sex. Instead, make a date to be intimate when you’re feeling your best. For many people with arthritis, this may be in the late morning or afternoon. Choose whatever time of day is best for you.

You can also plan to help make sure you’re feeling as well rested and pain free as possible. For example, you might take a hot shower or bath before sex to ease joint pain and stiffness. Taking your medication about 30 minutes before sexual activity may also help make the experience more pleasurable.

For many people, sex happens only in the bedroom. But it can be exciting to create a space outside of your bedroom for sex. “Bedrooms aren’t always the sexiest places,” says Evelyn Resh, CNM. Resh is a certified sexuality counselor in private practice in western Massachusetts. “Because the bed is most often a place for refuge and rest, it can be hard to get in the mood when you’re in a place you associate with sleep.”

Instead, Resh suggests creating a “love shack” within your home. You can decorate it with fabrics and pillows that appeal to you. If you don’t have an extra room, use a guest room or convert a space in your living room or study. Or, experiment with having sex in different rooms. You may find that it offers an exciting change of pace.

Many people with arthritis have problems with mobility. This can make some sexual positions difficult or impossible, especially if you have arthritis in the hips, knees, or spine. “So often people get stuck in one way of having sex, and when that’s not possible, they give up,” says Resh. “But it shouldn’t mean an end to sex. Instead, think of it as a reason to have fun experimenting with different sexual positions.”

Try to talk openly with your partner about what positions feel good and what hurts. If talking is too difficult, write each other notes about what you’d like to try. Or use your hands and eyes to guide the way. “There are many tasteful books that can help you find different positions that might work for you,” says Resh. Looking through a book together can be an exciting way to broach the topic.

You can also experiment with new ways to touch. For example, if your hands are affected by arthritis, try touching your partner lightly with the back of your hand, or use a feather or scarf.

If your joints are especially painful or difficult to move, pillows or other props can help provide support. And sexual enhancement tools, such as vibrators and lubricants, can also play a role in having enjoyable sex with your partner. “Vibrators can be very helpful for those who have arthritis in the hands,” says Resh. “And it can be exciting to play with these tools together.”

It’s important to remember that intimacy is not just about intercourse or having an orgasm. “The most important part of sex is the skin-to-skin and soul-to-soul contact with your partner, and your willingness to connect on an intimate level with that person,” says Resh. “Giving someone your undivided attention is one of the sexiest things you can do.”

If intercourse isn’t possible, explore other ways of being intimate. “Your sexual relationship doesn’t need to end just because intercourse does,” says Resh. “Look for other ways to connect physically, and take your time and have fun with it. For example, a lot of long-term couples stop making out after many years together,” says Resh. “Resurrecting that may be exciting.”

Another idea is to use massage as a form of foreplay. “Ask your partner to give you a massage or rub the areas of your body that hurt,” says Resh. “This can be a great way to start touching.”

Just as our bodies change, so does our sexuality. “Sexuality isn’t static,” says Resh. “Our sexuality evolves just as we do.” This might mean that what you enjoyed when you were younger or when you didn’t have arthritis might not be possible anymore. But this doesn’t have to be a negative. Making changes in your sex life can be exciting and new. “We need to look for ways to continue to feel sexually vital as we age,” says Resh. “This is true for everyone, whether you have a chronic illness such as arthritis or not.”

Try to be patient with yourself and your partner as you explore different approaches to sex and intimacy. It may take some time to learn what feels good for both of you.