A photo of a young woman lying with her back turned on her male partner after an argument in their bedroom
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In 2019, a group of Australian researchers published a systematic literature review that concluded what many people with inflammatory arthritis have long suspected: Sexual dysfunction is common among people living with this chronic illness. Now a new research review, conducted by the same group, finds that people with chronic musculoskeletal pain that does not stem from inflammatory arthritis may also experience sex and relationship problems.

In the new study, which was published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, researchers analyzed 51 earlier studies conducted between 1990 and September 2019 that pertained to the connection between musculoskeletal pain (not related to an inflammatory or autoimmune condition) and sexual functioning, relationships, body image, and self-worth. This could include osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic lower back pain, injuries causing pain, or other similar conditions.

According to the findings, people with chronic musculoskeletal pain were likely to have problems getting along with a partner as well as be critical of their own body and sexual identity. They were also likely to find sex physically challenging.

Pain and mobility problems are likely a factor, at least in part. But the researchers also note that many chronic pain patients take antidepressants, and that sexual dysfunction is a well-known side effect of these drugs.

“These data reinforce the importance of appreciating the wide-reaching impacts of chronic pain on people’s lives,” the authors wrote, adding that “impaired sexual function and sexual identity contribute to reduced quality of life and self-worth.” They added that many doctors who treat people with chronic pain fail to discuss the impact it can have on intimate relationships.

Chronic illnesses present physical, mental, and emotional challenges when it comes to sex, intimacy, and relationships. In order to help people overcome those obstacles, health care providers need to inform patients of potential issues, create a safe space to discuss them, and provide advice for maintaining sex, intimacy, and relationships when you have a chronic illness.

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Briggs AM, et al. Chronic primary or secondary non-inflammatory musculoskeletal pain is associated with disrupted sexual function and relationships: a systematic review. Arthritis Care & Research. May 3, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.24711.

Restoux LJ, et al. Systematic Review of the Impact of Inflammatory Arthritis on Intimate Relationships and Sexual Function. Arthritis Care & Research. April 3, 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23857.

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