Chronic Pain and
Søren Frølich, Health Psychologist
Chronic pain, understood as constant or regularly recurrent
a problem suffered by at least 10% of the population.
In the course of the last 25 years there has been a renewed interest
in research in the problem of pain, viewed medically and
A great number of scientific reports have been published on various
of pain and pain treatment. However very few of these many papers
sexual aspects of pain. Most of the reports that do relate to sexual
of chronic pain are concerned with specific, genitally related pain
(e.g. dyspareunia) while even fewer address the general problem, that
form of chronic pain can have, and often has, a profound impact on the
patients sexual life.
Chronic pain sufferers seeking medical assistance are more often women
than men, more often elderly than they are young. This fact might be
of the explanation for the apparent professional disregard for the
that chronic pain poses in relation to sexual experience and behavior.
Pleasure and displeasure
Pain is defined as an unpleasant experience. Sexual desire and behavior
is usually associated with achieving satisfaction and pleasure as a
Thus pain (at least chronic pain) and sex seem to be incompatible
The few scientific reports available do indeed affirm the assumption
chronic pain in general inhibits sexual desire and activity. And, on
other hand there are experimental confirmations that sexual arousal
certain circumstances can alleviate pain temporarily.
Pain as an inhibitor of desire
Even in regard to the general population pain seems to be a fairly
cause of reduced sexual activity. In a recent Danish population survey
about quality of life in general 3.7% of women (as compared
only 0.5% of men) indicated pain as responsible for a reduction in
activities.In clinical practice, working with chronic pain patients, it
will become apparent if one cares to ask, that a large proportion of
patients have acquired problems in their sexual lives. These problems
be very straightforward ones as when sexual activity causes a worsening
of the pain, or they can take a more indirect form associated with a
lack of energy and decreased sexual desire.
"Where I before went to bed with my husband, I now go to bed
with a hotter bottle.", says a woman with chronic back pain.
When one part of a couple, for one reason or another develops a chronic
pain handicap, it will inadvertedly influence the relationship as such,
including the sexual relationship. Worsening of pain in connection with
sexual activities or even the expectation of such a worsening is a
put off and functions as a deconditioner of the sexual responses. Lust
becomes tainted with displeasure, and sexual activities tend to become
less frequent. Life together with a chronic pain sufferer also tends to
have a negative influence on the "healthy" partner's general
physical and psychological well-being.
In cases where the location of pain is not in close vicinity of sexual
organs, increased pain can many times be avoided by changes in
e.g.. using "petting" or oral sex instead of coitus. Change
of habits requires a good communication between the parties, and in
sensitive subject area both involved far too often refrain from
additional problems out of (misunderstood) concern for the other's
Sex as a pain-killer ?
Experiments on animals have shown that a suitable stimulation of sexual
organs raises the pain threshold for stimuli, that otherwise provoke
reactions. Similar experiments have been conducted with humans and
likewise that sexual arousal eases pain.
This evidence supports the assumption that natural pain reducing
are stimulated by sexual arousal. Beside this there is the
factor, that any type of distraction, especially pleasant distractions,
tend to make pain more bearable.
Some patients with chronic pain have discovered a relieving effect
of sexual activity or phantasy on their pain, and a few are able to
this effect deliberately.
People with chronic pain have a handicap that fundamentally reduces
quality of life and most often also has negative consequences for their
work, their economy, their family life and their sexuality. When
with a pain state, that turns out to be chronic, pain patients at first
tend to put their life on "stand by" and often show depressive
in the form of decreased activity and withdrawal from social contacts,
including sexual contacts.
Medical treatment can only partly alleviate chronic pain, so the
will have to try to "learn to live with" the remaining pain as best
Professional help can be very usefull in this difficult process in
the damage caused by the pain on many other aspects of the patients
Professionals trying to help pain patients should perhaps be less shy
addressing the sexual aspects of pain. Frankness is essential both in
communications between patient and the professional as well as between
the patient and the patient's partner. In an effort to conserve a
of life quality for a pain patient the prospective potential for sexual
functioning, should definitely play a role.
Carlsson P, Frølich S. Smerte og seksualitet. In: Graugaard C, Hertoft
P, Møhl B (eds.) Hjerne og seksualitet. København: Munksgaard