Sex and chronic joint pain: how to improve intimacy

Having long term, chronic joint pain can leave us having discomfort and stiffness impacting our sex life. 


Normal sexual function involved several phases from arousal to relaxation and involved feelings of pleasure fulfilment and satisfaction. Rheumatic diseases may affect all aspects of life including sexual functioning. Previous surveys have shown that a percentage of people with arthritis who have sexual problems ranges from around one in three (31%) to as many as three out of four (76%). 


Although sexuality is not explored in questionnaires used to assess quality of life and a survey among rheumatologist found that one in eight (12%) were asked if they experienced sexual difficulties. There are many medical interventions that may be prescribed, depending on the form of arthritis. But one overlooked part of managing any form of arthritis is a person’s food choices. 


From having arthritis, your se life can be affected in several ways. Pain can lead to anxiety and stress that dampens your sex drives and prevents relaxation. Joints that are stiff, painful and swollen can lead to difficulty in assuming certain positions, especially if your hip or knee movements are limited. Reduced strength or mobility in your hands or arms can affect foreplay and the mechanics of lovemaking, too. 


Prescribed medication can affect your libido, contribute to erectile difficulties or impair your ability to reach sexual climax. It is common to also feel tired an exhausted for much of the time, especially if you have an autoimmune form of arthritis such as psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis. As least half of women with an autoimmune arthritis also experience vaginal dryness because of an associated Sjogren’s syndrome, in which drying up of secretions can lead to painful sex (dyspareunia).


People are of the opinion that they think this is an embarrassing topic to talk about, but it is very important to take time out to discuss the problem with your significant other. Through talking things through it provides good communication, something that is vital in relationships to prevent misunderstandings that may cause you to drift apart. 


Sexuality is not just about sexual intercourse, it also involved emotions, how feminine, masculine or attractive you feel. Sexuality involves self-esteem and the ability to enjoy a warm, loving and tactile relationship. 


Your partner may feel worries about initiating sexual activity if they know you are suffering from joint pain, similarly you may feel like you are in pain to even contemplate such behaviour therefore it is important to reassure your partner that it is due to your pain that you are not wanting to have intercourse, rather than simply not fancying them anymore. There are other ways of showing intimacy towards your partner and it is important to show affection though touching, holding, kissing and caressing so your partner doesn’t feel isolated or pushed away. 


It was mentioned earlier in the article that it is important to maintain a healthy weight and it is recommended to by a Mediterranean diet to ensure you have plenty of fruit, vegetables and fish. Through eating this way, it helps reduce in the inflammation of the joints, promote weight loss and helps to lower the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease which is raised in people with rheumatoid arthritis. 


We suggest trying a Mediterranean fig and mozzarella salad – a simple recipe that can be eating as a lunch or even as a side dish at a summer party. All you need is:


200g fine green bean, trimmed

6 small figs, quartered

1 shallot, thinly slice

Mozzarella balls, drained and ripped into chunks 

50g hazelnut, toasted and chopped

Basil leaves, torn

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar 

1 tbsp fig jam or relish

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil


All you have to do is:


  1. In a large saucepan of salted water, blanch the beans for 2-3 minutes. Drain, rinse in cold water, then drain on kitchen paper. Arrange on a platter. Top with the figs, shallots, mozzarella, hazelnuts and basil.
  2. In a small bowl or jam jar with fitted lid, add the vinegar, fig jam, olive oil and add some seasoning. Shake well and pour over the salad just before serving.

The overall aim of the self-treatment through your diet is to help manage symptoms of arthritis, so you can continue to enjoy your life as much as possible. 


The important thing is to seek help when you most need it and don’t be embarrassed about your situation. In most cases, a solution can be found to improve the situation. This may be through pain relief, medication to treat depression or erectile difficulties, cognitive behavioural or psychosexual counselling or some cases, surgery to replace the affected joint. 


But once again to remind you if you’re suffering… GET HELP!