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Don't Let Arthritis Ruin Your Sex Life

Making love may be just the medicine you need to relieve joint pain

"Go home and make love as needed."

Has your doctor ever given you that prescription?

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No, I thought not. But for the estimated 35 million American adults with osteoarthritis, the most common form of joint pain, such a cure makes perfect sense: Sex is surprisingly good for the joints.

spinner image great sex prescription arthritis suffer joints osteoarthritis
Scheduling sex allows you to make love at a time of day when your symptoms cause less discomfort.

When people say "arthritis," they usually mean osteoarthritis (OA), which typically results from decades of wear and tear.

Healthy joints are lined with shock-absorbing cartilage, whose job is to keep your bones from grinding into one another. In osteoarthritis, by contrast, cartilage breaks down, causing stiffness and pain, possibly swelling, and reduced range of motion.

Symptoms are worse in the morning.

Osteoarthritis risk increases with age, weight, a history of joint injury and repetitive strain — frequent use of a computer keyboard being the prime culprit.

To manage OA, doctors advise low-impact exercise that gently moves joints through their full range of motion: walking, gardening, swimming, biking, in-pool calisthenics — and sex.

"Sex is terrific for people with arthritis," says Palo Alto sex therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D. "Sex involves gentle, range-of-motion exercise, which minimizes pain and inflammation. It also releases endorphins, the body's natural pain relievers. Sex strengthens the muscles around the joints, which helps support them. And it's mood-elevating, which likewise helps alleviate pain."

Test-drive these suggestions for the best arthritis relief from sex.

Before You Have Sex

1. Make sex dates. Living with any chronic condition requires lifestyle adjustments and planning. Scheduling sex allows you to prepare in advance, perhaps with gentle stretching. It can also allow you to make love at a time of day (afternoons or evenings, say) when your symptoms cause less discomfort.

2. Exercise beforehand. Physical activity is a great way to manage OA. Take a walk together, go dancing or be active in any fashion you both enjoy. A fringe benefit: Being active together nonsexually before making love deepens emotional intimacy.

3. Take a warm bath or shower. Heat soothes the joints. It's also relaxing, which helps prepare the mind and body for sex.

4. Take your medicine. If you feel only pain or stiffness in your joints, consider taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) before sex. If you experience joint inflammation, try an anti-inflammatory pain reliever such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). (A caution: Heavy, long-term use of acetaminophen may cause liver damage; chronic use of the others may cause gastrointestinal distress and ulcers.)

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During and After Sex 

1. Move your bod — your whole bod. If your sex includes intercourse, don't limit yourself to pelvic gyrations. The best exercise for OA moves the joints through their full range of motion: the fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, back, hips, knees and ankles. So touch each other all over. Gently massage the muscles around each other's joints. Stretch to reach your partner's scalp and feet. Whole-body sex not only helps manage OA, it's also the kind of lovemaking experts recommend to optimize erotic satisfaction.

2. Take a toy to bed. OA stiffens many people's fingers, which can make loving caresses difficult. Vibrators often help.

3. Make adjustments. If either of you has knee problems, experiment with pillows and positions that minimize strain.

4. Check in. Alert each other to positions and moves that hurt. Focus on ones that don't.

5. Stay sexual. Some people think: "I'm in pain; pain ruins sex; therefore, I'm done with sex." Others think: "I may be in pain, but I'm still a sexual person, so I'll adapt to remain sexual." Be that second thinker.

6. Talk it out. If arthritis continues to interfere with your lovemaking, a sex therapist can suggest accommodations to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research or the American Board of Sexology.

7. Swap it out. If none of these suggestions provides sufficient pain relief, consider joint replacement. When Jose A. Rodriguez, M.D., director of the Center for Joint Preservation and Reconstruction at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, surveyed 147 people with severe arthritis, he found that most of them reported sexual impairment and dissatisfaction. After joint replacement, however, 81 percent of them reported increased sexual frequency and enjoyment.

So what are you waiting for? To control arthritis pain and stiffness, move your joints through their full range of motion — between the sheets.

Sex expert Michael Castleman, M.A., publisher of the website GreatSexAfter40, is the author of two books, Great Sex and Sexual Solutions.

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