When I Get That Feeling I Want... Arthritis Healing

The stage was set for a romantic evening. The kids were spending the night at grandma’s. The house was blissfully empty and quiet, with the whole evening ahead of us. It was the perfect time to be together, just me and my husband . . . and my RA.

Oh rheumatoid arthritis, you are the worst third wheel imaginable. Far worse than a roommate who always tags along on dates, RA can be impossible to shake. On that recent rare date night, instead of a night on the town followed by some romance at home, a flare grounded me with a evening on the couch. My hip was in too much pain to stand the pressure of a seat belt, much less the pressure of my husband’s body against mine. I couldn’t even cuddle with him on the sofa because the slightest touch on my body kicked the pain up a notch. Luckily a painkiller and muscle relaxer numbed the pain, but the meds couldn’t lessen the disappointment of missing out on this opportunity to physically connect with my husband. Having two small children and two full-time jobs, it can be hard enough to find time alone, but once you factor in unpredictable RA, it turns any scheduled date night into a crap shoot.

Even when not in a full-on flare, rheumatoid arthritis can intrude in the bedroom. Repetitive motion can strain inflamed joints, and sex happens to involve a lot of repetitive motion. There have been many times when I feel pretty good before we get to the bedroom, but once things get underway a hip or knee will start to protest. In those situations I have to change position, and sometimes my husband worries that I’m not enjoying myself. When I’m trying to be in the moment, indulging in this physical connection with him, the last thing I feel like talking about is my rheumatoid arthritis. Yet, when he’s asking for clarification about whether he might be doing something I don’t like, I haven’t found a way around saying, “It’s just my hip” or “My knee can’t handle that right now.” Talking RA is the polar opposite of talking dirty.

If my joints are sensitive but I’m not in a flare, there are a few things that I’ve found can help. Taking a muscle relaxer about 20 minutes before sex can reduce the impact of the physical activity on my joints. Likewise, taking some ibuprofen or acetaminophen a half hour or so before heading to the bedroom can help keep things comfortable. If I have time to plan a couple of hours ahead of time, putting a lidocaine patch on an achy hip or knee can partially numb the joint, making it easier for me to enjoy myself. I try to have the patch on long enough for it to take some effect and then remove it before getting undressed. Again, RA is just not sexy, and a peeling, sticky pad coming loose during the act is going to provide an unwanted distraction.

There have been times when a flare has lasted longer than I’m willing to remain abstinent. I find that sex can recalibrate my husband and I to one another. If we’re feeling impatient or cranky with one another, and find ourselves nagging or scolding each other for uncompleted chores or mundane household decisions, having sex can hone us in on what we love about each other by opening us up to tenderness and a sense of togetherness. If I have a flare that is lasting weeks, I still want us to be able to physically reconnect. In those cases, I’ll communicate with my husband ahead of time that I can have sex, but that I’ll need pillows to support my joints and will have to keep things simple position-wise. Having this conversation before we are in the moment is far preferable than having to bring it up in the bedroom. For those occasions, I’ll up the ante and take a prescription painkiller about 30 minutes ahead of time.

It seems there’s just no aspect of life that RA leaves untouched. I am so lucky to have a husband who is always supportive of my health needs, who always takes up my slack when I can’t do all the things I want to do. It’s frustrating that rheumatoid arthritis not only intrudes on my work life and home life, but also on my sex life. I’d love to be able to have sex whenever he and I can carve out the time and the privacy in our home bursting with the energy of two little ones. Unfortunately, there are times when I have to say, “Not tonight, dear, I have a joint-ache.”

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