Sex helps my pain

Natalie is 23 years-old and suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSD), also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). She tells The Mix how her condition has affected, but by no means hindered, her sex life.

True Stories

Model with condom

"Sex takes my mind off the pain."

I’m on long-term sick leave and I have been since I first got RSD. I live with my husband of two years and our cats. We are both musicians – I play the flute and sing, but unfortunately not as much as I used to.

It all started from a sprain in my knee and ankle four years ago and now I have RSD in all four of my limbs. It took 18 months for me to be diagnosed – at first it only affected my leg, but then it spread to my other limbs. It means I have constant pain and ‘weird sensations’, which are often hard to explain to other people. No one knows why some people will develop RSD after an injury and why others won’t. I guess I was one of the unlucky ones.

Coping with change

My arms and legs don’t always do as they’re told, so I need help with all sorts of things and I use crutches or my electric wheelchair to get around. I also can’t wear shoes very often or do anything strenuous; every sensation hurts.

Because of my disability, my husband gave up work to be my carer. He tried to carry on working and care for me, but this proved to be impossible. At the beginning I hated not being able to do things for myself and struggled to ask my husband for help. A lot of the time I would ask for minimal assistance, which sometimes made things worse.

I wish I could shower and dress myself fully everyday, and not just do most of it on a good day. I want to be able to cook and clean as well and do all those other mundane things that other people take for granted. Because I’ve had RSD for four years, the likelihood of remission is quite low. The best chances of recovering fully are when you start treatment within three to six months of developing the condition.

The big ‘O’

Unfortunately, our sex life isn’t as spontaneous as it used to be and some sexual positions are totally impossible, but the good thing is that sex helps the pain! Luckily, we’re both good at communicating with each other – we’ve learnt that over time. There are only a few positions we can do (and they’ve been adapted) that don’t hurt. However, we’ve found ways to improve our sex life and cope with my pain by using cushions and foam wedges. These are a godsend because they prop up the bits that need supporting.

I think that at first some people may be put off having sex with their partner if they’ve got a disability, but for most people, you just have to learn to adjust. I’ve had the occasional idiot come up to me in the street asking silly questions about my sex life when they see my wedding ring. When I try to explain to my friends about how sex helps the pain, I tell them it’s like if you were to break your wrist and stub your toe at the same time. Stubbing your toe wouldn’t hurt as much because the brain is focusing on your wrist. It’s the same theory with sex and pain. If the pain is constant, then you can have an orgasm and it actually helps to reduce the pain for a short time. This is because an orgasm isn’t a constant sensation and the brain focuses on that.

At first I thought this was all a bit weird, but when I talked to other people with RSD, many said they have the same effect during sex. It doesn’t work every time, but it’s certainly an added bonus! At the same time, it’s all well and good that orgasms help the pain, but it doesn’t make it go away completely and you’ve still got to reach climax in the first place.

Self-esteem and body-image

Before I had RSD I was very active and now obviously I’m not. I’m a lot less confident about my body now and I certainly can’t do step aerobics four times a week like I used to. I find it gross when my limbs swell and change colour, but I have had to learn to deal with it. I can’t dress up in sexy lingerie and surprise my hubby any more; I need his help in putting it on, not just taking it off! Even though these days I may feel less confident about myself, I try not to let it affect things by making him turn the lights off when we’re having sex.

I don’t know whether things would have been different for me if I’d have been single when I was struck down with RSD. I’m glad that I didn’t have to find out. I don’t think I’d like the dating scene anyway, regardless of the RSD. But I do know lots of people who have had RSD and found love after being diagnosed.

I was adamant that RSD wouldn’t take away my sex life and it was great once we found things that worked. Ultimately, the best thing you can do if you’re in my situation is to communicate with your partner, and don’t be scared to try different things until you find something that works.

Photo of model with condom by Shutterstock

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015