Pete Beisner and his wife have found that sex is a great way to alleviate pain and help people heal after injuries or surgery.
In the years before I met her, my wife had a couple of experiences that left her with such serious injures she actually saw the proverbial light and the tunnel. Some of those injuries left her with long term complications, so many, in fact, that we’ve lost count of how many injuries and surgeries she has had during our relationship. But our best estimate on the surgeries is around thirteen.
One of the few upsides of being in a marriage with someone who has a broken body is that I now have a world of experience in loving someone who experiences pain and needs more physical help, and can pass along some of the things I have learned to help other people. Last year, I shared 23 tips for helping a partner in pain. I was surprised when we heard from a lot of people wanting to express their thanks.
When I wrote that article, I debated about whether to include information about sex during recovery because it can help manage pain. But in the end, I decided that it really needed its own article.
It is tough to get educational information about having sex with someone recovering from a serious injury or surgery. With most in-patient surgeries, you get instructions to abstain from sex until a certain number of weeks after the procedure. In most cases, that number coincides with return to part or full-time work. But there are problems with that estimate of time, and it leaves out a whole lot of information that could make your partner’s recovery easier.
To make this simpler, I am going to use an acronym for Sex After Surgery or Injury: SASI. Also, I use the pronoun “she” because s/he is too cumbersome and my experience as a heterosexual partner is what informs this article.
Here is the first thing you must know:
You can easily and accidentally hurt your partner during sex. I will explain how and why later. But suffice it to say, you need more than just common sense when it comes to SASI. However, it is important for you to know that I AM NOT A DOCTOR. I am writing from my own experiences.
1. Sexual arousal can diminish the experience of pain. In addition to providing comfort for some people, it can raise levels of oxytocin and release endorphins according Barry R. Komisaruk, PhD, a distinguished service professor at Rutgers.
2. Sexual stimulation is not a replacement for other forms of pain management, but it can make them more effective. Think about pain as a small fire, like one that can happen on a stove while cooking. If you have a large glass of water, or pain reliever, you can put out a small fire easily. But once the flames get higher, you are going to need more than just one glass of water to put out the fire. Augmenting other pain management tools with sexual arousal can be very helpful for some people.
3. The pain blocking effects of sexual arousal are not all good. If you think about sex as exercise AND a numbing agent, you should spot the problem pretty quickly. Your partner can get hurt because she fails to notice when an activity or position is not good for her.
4. Have a clear talk with the surgeon or treating doctor in front of your spouse. It is important that you have this talk with the person in charge of your partner’s care, not a nurse or other doctor.
It is important to have the conversation yourself because you are responsible for keeping your partner safe during a very vulnerable time. Reading the discharge instructions are not enough because the kind of sex referred to in those documents is stannous penetrative sex.
Here is what you need to ask: What bodily activity (motions or physiological processes) would be harmful? If you understand the mechanics of what kind of activity should be limited, you will better be able to help your partner in every part of her recovery.
For most surgeries and major injuries, you will be instructed not to have sex before the six week check-up. But unless you are otherwise instructed, if your partner wants gentle and non-penetrative sexual contact that is perfectly reasonable. And it may even be very helpful and healing for your partner (See #3)
There are exceptions to this, of course. If your partner has had surgery on her reproductive or lower digestive tracts, it may be important for your partner to avoid orgasming for a number of weeks. For a few conditions, even getting sexual aroused can be dangerous.
Unless you are told otherwise, it is usually safe to pleasure your partner at whatever point your partner wants it. But, just in case I have not said this enough already, let me say it one more time. If you have any questions ASK THE DOCTOR.
5. For the first several weeks after a person starts recovering (that may not be the date of injury or surgery if there are complications) sexual contact should be about making the recovering partner comfortable – and nothing else.
As stressful as this time is, it is not a time to expect you partner to help you with your sexual needs. Of course it is okay to talk about how you feel. But personally, and this is just my opinion, it is not really cool to ask for anything sexual until your partner has returned to her normal routine.
6. It is not weird or wrong for your partner to want sexual contact and for you to give it. There are lots of reasons why your partner might want sex other than just pain relief. Some people are comforted by it. Others find that it helps them manage the frustration caused by the limitations that their illness or injury has put on them. If sexual contact has the power to make your partner feel comforted or less pain and it is what she wants, there is nothing wrong and everything right with giving it to her.
7. Don’t wait until you are in the moment to make a limit for what you are willing to do. People who have learned about the obliviating power of sexual feelings either by experience or from hearing about it can become desperate for sexual tough when their pain gets out of hand..
But sometimes a partner’s need to make the pain go away can cause her to ask for things that she is not ready for. That is why you want to have safety information and make decisions about your limits ahead of time.
8. If either of you are not comforted or comfortable with sex, non sexual touching can promote healing and drastically reduce pain. There are only so many touch messages that the brain can process, and sometimes you can overload the nervous system with positive touches so that negative ones are not as “noisy.”
9. At some point, it is a good idea to make friends with the injured part of your partner’s body. Kiss the scar. Touch the area with as much gentleness as you would the eyelids of a newborn. When a part of your partner’s body fails, your partner can feel alienated from it or betrayed by it. It sounds goofy as shit, and I hesitate to say this because it makes no sense, but consider taking to the injured area, telling it that you will protect it and that you want it to heal. I know, it sounds all hippy-dippy, but it can be hugely healing for your partner. My wife says that she has been able restore a good relationship with parts of her body because I touched them, included them in my love-making instead of ignoring them.
10. Pain medication can make it easy for a partner to get aroused but hard for the person to orgasm. There is a blissed out state that your partner may be able to enter. It provides a brief vacation from pain that sort of resets the pain meter to zero.
11. Pillows, pillows and pillows – also lube, if needed.
12. When possible, try to rehearse positions without either of you being aroused. If your partner cannot kneel or lay on her back with her legs in the air when she is not aroused, she should not be doing it when she is aroused.
13. Orgasms can cause a person’s whole body to contract. That full-body jerking can jar the injured surgical site causing a great deal of pain. Talk to your partner about the possibility of helping her restrain the injured part of her body when she is about to orgasm.
14. Check in with your partner often, more often than you even would with a new partner. You may want to take mini-breaks if you have returned to strenuous activities so that your check-in is when your partner is less aroused.
15. Ice first, then cuddle. Both of you may not think that you have done anything harmful, but apply ice anyway. Trust me – just do it.
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