Sexual Health and Chronic Illness: Managing Sexual Challenges and Maintaining Intimacy

Sexual Health and Chronic Illness: Managing Sexual Challenges and Maintaining Intimacy


Millions of people are affected by chronic illness worldwide, suffering from a range of conditions, such as; diabetes, crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue and many others. Having a chronic condition can not only cause a range of physical and emotional challenges, but chronic illness can also affect our sex-life and intimacy in relationships. 

Let’s explore how chronic illness affects our sex-life with five ways to manage sexual challenges when living with a chronic illness. 

How does a chronic illness affect our sex-life?

Physical limitation 
Many chronic illnesses can cause people to experience physical limitations in their day-to-day life, which can make sexual activity difficult or uncomfortable. Chronic pain is often a common companion to those with a long-term health condition, and engaging in sexual activity whilst in chronic pain can be incredibly challenging. As well as this, a lot of people with chronic illness also suffer from fatigue, leaving those with a chronic illness too exhausted to engage in sexual activity. Finally, there may be reduced mobility, so engaging in sexual activity may become more difficult that at one time felt a lot more simple. Therefore, there can be a lot of sexual challenges to manage when dealing with a chronic illness. 

Medication side effects
Medication can be a life-line for those suffering from a chronic illness, however, many medications can come with potential side effects, which may impact on sexual function or desire, causing additional sexual challenges that may need to be managed. Some of these common side effects may include; decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, or difficulty reaching orgasm

Emotional and psychological challenges 
Not only do physical limitations and medication side effects impact on maintaining a healthy sex-life when suffering with a chronic illness, but chronic illness can also cause emotional and psychological issues. Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed or having low self-esteem can often be a common challenge that those with a chronic illness face. Feeling anxious or worried about our health or the progression of a chronic illness may create difficulty in being spontaneous and sexual desire, whilst depression may reduce an interest in intimacy, leading to withdrawal from sexual activity. In addition, low self-esteem may affect one’s sexual self condition, altering self-image and body perception, causing difficulty connecting intimately with a loved one.  

Five ways to manage sexual challenges when living with a chronic illness 

Living with a chronic condition can be a complex and challenging time for people, and causes many physical and emotional barriers to enjoying a satisfying sex-life. Here’s five ways to manage sexual challenges when living with a chronic illness. 

  1. Open and Honest communication. Having good communication between your partner and yourself is an important part of managing sexual challenges relating to chronic illness and sex. Talk to your partner about how you are feeling, and any concerns or limitations that you have. Communicating openly, and sharing how you feel will help you both work together to find solutions to any sex-life challenges that you currently face. Not only that, but feeling supported and listened to will help bring you two closer together and increase the intimacy between you, leading to more satisfying sex.

  2. Adapt to physical limitations.  Find ways of increasing intimacy,  by experimenting with new techniques, positions or aids, such as sex-toys or lubricant. Sometimes, we need to adapt the way we engage in sexual activity, and this can be an exciting journey of discovery for both partners.

  3. Manage medication side effects. Medications that are prescribed to help manage chronic illnesses can occasionally cause side effects that impact on sexual activity. Talk to your doctor about any sexual side effects you are having, as they may be able to help manage these side effects by adjusting your treatment plan or recommending alternative medications. 

  4. Set realistic expectations. It can be easy to compare your current sex-life to the one you had in the past, or to set unrealistic expectations to how you think your sex-life should be. However, this can sometimes make engaging in sexual activity more difficult as it can make you feel stressed, anxious or worried, which can increase symptoms of sexual dysfunction. It’s natural to have fluctuations in sexual desire and ability when living with a chronic illness, so it’s important to manage your own expectations and be understanding and patient with yourself and your partner. 

  5. Focus on emotional intimacy. Being intimate with your loved one doesn’t always have to mean sex. Being able to support one another, and acknowledging the emotional challenges that chronic illness can bring can help increase the intimacy between you both. When the time and opportunity does present itself, you’ll find you feel closer to one another, which can lead to more sexual satisfaction and more pleasurable orgasms.

Navigating specific chronic conditions and managing sexual challenges 

Different chronic illnesses can present different challenges when it comes to a satisfying sex-life. Understanding the specific ways your condition may impact on your sex life can help you adapt more effectively - for example; 

Diabetes can lead to sexual difficulties due to hormonal imbalances or nerve damage. In order to manage this, try and maintain good blood sugar control and discuss strategies with your doctor, whilst exploring positions and techniques that help to minimise discomfort. 

Crohn’s Disease 
Crohn’s Disease can often cause abdominal pain and discomfort, so planning intimate moments during pain-free periods, whilst creating an environment that feels more comfortable can help make sex more enjoyable. Alternatively, find new ways to connect (either physically or emotionally) to help increase the intimacy between your partner and yourself. 

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) 
Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, can often result in muscle weakness and fatigue. To increase sexual intimacy, plan intimate moments during the time of the day when energy levels are higher whilst using techniques and positions that help to minimise physical strain on the body. Communicate with your partner openly about your needs and explore support aids, such as lubricant that may benefit your sex-life. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
Rheumatoid Arthritis can often cause joint pain and stiffness, which can impact on sexual activity. Gentle exercises may help to maintain flexibility, whilst sexual aids may help make sex feel more comfortable. It’s important to communicate openly with your partner about your needs and your boundaries. 

Fibromyalgia can cause pain throughout the body and fatigue, which can often make sex uncomfortable or you might feel too exhausted to engage in sexual activity. Choose low-impact activities that can help minimise the discomfort, whilst engaging in gentle touch and massage to increase the intimacy between you both. 

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