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Can Chronic Pain Relief Be Playful? The Unexpected Benefits of Sexual Activity

COPD Basics

February 17, 2024

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Photography by Gary John Norman/Stocksy United

Photography by Gary John Norman/Stocksy United

by Jenna Fletcher


Medically Reviewed by:



by Jenna Fletcher


Medically Reviewed by:



Yes, sexual activity might help relieve pain. It could also improve your sleep, mood, and stress levels. Some of the best results seem to be from climaxing, but reaching the big O isn’t necessary.

When you’re living with a condition that causes chronic pain, you might feel like you’ve tried almost everything to get some relief.

But have you tried masturbating or having sex?

Of course, when you’re in pain, this might not be your first thought. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that sexual arousal can act as a natural pain reliever.

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How can sexual activity and orgasms relieve pain?

Scientists believe that orgasms and pain are linked because they share pathways in the brain. This means having an orgasm might reduce pain, but having pain can make achieving an orgasm harder.

Being in the mood may not be enough to help you take advantage of the pain-relieving effects of orgasms, though. While sexual arousal is thought to reduce pain in men, a 2022 study suggests that sexual arousal alone may not be enough to help relieve pain in women — but an orgasm or genital stimulation might.

Living with chronic pain may make it harder to get in the mood or reach orgasm, but it still might be worth trying. Your body releases “feel-good hormones” during arousal and orgasms, including endorphins and oxytocin, that have pain-relieving effects.

Sexual pleasure may also have a whole host of other benefits.

Your relationship with sex and sexuality

It’s important to remember that people identify differently and have varying relationships with sexual activity.

This isn’t always easy in the society we live in, which often normalizes cisgender heterosexual relationships. Whether you have a sexual partner or not doesn’t define who you are or your worth.

If you do engage sexually with other people, no matter their identity or sexuality, consent should always be shared.

You can learn more about the terms used to describe sexual attraction, behavior, and orientation here.

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Are there other benefits of sexual activity?

Better sleep

Sexual activity with a partner may help improve your sleep.

According to a 2023 study, partnered sexual activity that leads to orgasm helps decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and improves sleep quality.

Improved sleep quality did not occur from masturbation. Similarly, if you don’t reach orgasm during the activity, you may not notice improvement in sleep.

The orgasm gap

The “orgasm gap” is a term used to describe the disparity between women and men experiencing orgasms. The term usually refers to people in heterosexual relationships having penetrative vaginal sex. Research suggests heterosexual women reach orgasm 65% of the time, while heterosexual men reach it 95% of the time.

Women are more likely to orgasm from other methods of sexual stimulation, such as oral sex or genital stimulation. But orgasms aren’t the be-all and end-all.

Stress relief

If you’re feeling stressed, you may find that sex helps take some of the edge off. Those feel-good hormones released during sexual arousal, including endorphins, can help relieve stress.

In a 2019 study, researchers found that intimacy can help reduce stress. Researchers noted that when couples kissed, hugged, and held hands, it helped return levels of cortisol — commonly known as the stress hormone — to normal levels in both partners.

Improved mood

Sex has a relatively proven track record for improving mood and relationships. For example, a 2021 study found that sexual intercourse during the COVID-19 pandemic had a protective effect against anxiety and depression.

You may find that your mood improves with regular sexual activity or seeking intimacy with your partner.

Is it safe to have sex when you live with chronic pain?

In many cases, yes, having sex when living with chronic pain is safe. However, discuss sex with a doctor if you have concerns about how it may affect your condition or symptoms.

“After finding out that I have MS, my sex life changed, first for the worse, and then for the better.”

Amy Mackelden in “Think You Can’t Have Good Sex After a Chronic Illness Diagnosis? Think Again”

In some cases, the type of pain you have may influence whether sex is safe or comfortable with chronic pain.

For example, people with endometriosis-related chronic pelvic pain may find penetrative vaginal sex uncomfortable or painful. This can lead to avoiding intimacy, but it does not have to.

According to a 2020 study, reaching orgasm from partnered sexual activities other than penetrative vaginal sex is associated with higher sexual satisfaction in those living with endometriosis.

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How to get in the mood when living with chronic pain

When living with chronic pain, getting in the mood for sexual activities can be a challenge. Pain can certainly hamper desire.

Some tips you can try with your partner to improve sexual intimacy include:

  • trying to prepare by taking medications, applying heat or cold, or taking other steps to decrease your pain levels
  • considering different positions that may take pressure off areas of pain or shift weight around
  • trying at different times of day based on when your pain levels are lower
  • considering all forms of sexual intimacy, not just penetrative sex, such as masturbation, oral sex, massage, or sex toys
  • considering consulting a sex counselor who can provide additional tips or suggestions based on your own needs or concerns

“When one or both partners in a relationship have a disability or chronic illness, it’s more important than ever to talk through any issues or concerns there might be.”

Amy Mackelden in “Think You Can’t Have Good Sex After a Chronic Illness Diagnosis? Think Again”

Read more about Amy’s experience in her article Think You Can’t Have Good Sex After a Chronic Illness Diagnosis? Think Again.

Intimacy doesn’t always have to be sexual. You can nurture or improve your intimacy with a partner through different activities, such as:

  • finding activities to do together
  • cuddling or snuggling after work, when watching TV or a movie, or whenever possible
  • consider taking a bath together, going on a romantic stroll, enjoying a romantic dinner, or taking other steps to increase romance and emotional intimacy
  • having open discussions about frustrations related to intimacy

Research suggests that most doctors have limited knowledge and confidence when discussing sexuality with people living with chronic conditions. It’s important to find a doctor with whom you can discuss any concerns.

If your pain is worsening and interfering with your sexual desire or other areas of daily life, you may consider changes to your medications or therapies.

Advice from people in similar situations can also help. Whether you’re navigating sexual intimacy while living with psoriatic arthritis or IBD or after chemotherapy for breast cancer, our chronic condition communities are here to support you.

The takeaway

Sexual activity and orgasms are possible when living with chronic pain. They may even help reduce pain and stress and improve your sleep quality and mood.

If penetrative types of sex bother your pain, you may find that oral sex or other forms of intimacy may be more enjoyable. They might be more likely to lead to an orgasm, too.

You can increase intimacy even without sexual activity. You can do this in several ways, including physical contact through cuddling, hugs, or taking a bath together. You can also improve emotional intimacy by taking steps to be romantic and communicating your frustrations with your partner.

Explore whatever tickles your fancy.

Medically reviewed on February 17, 2024

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About the author

Jenna Fletcher

Jenna Fletcher is a freelance writer and content creator. She writes extensively about health and wellness. As a mother of one stillborn twin, she has a personal interest in writing about overcoming grief and postpartum depression and anxiety, and reducing the stigma surrounding child loss and mental healthcare. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Muhlenberg College.

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