The No-Blush Guide to Sex and MS

by Lisa Fields Health Writer

So, you've got this condition that messes with the nerve pathways required for great sex. A whopping 91% of men and 72% of women with MS have reported trouble between the sheets, but most are too embarrassed to talk about it. If that's you, try to think about it like this:

"It's like saying, 'My car isn't running: Fix it,'" says Barry Hendin, M.D., chief medical officer of the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America in Phoenix, AZ. "What is it? The motor? The brakes? You've got to dive deeper. If you don't bring it up, you can't access the possibilities." And there are solutions to many MS-related sex problems. You've just gotta ask.

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What If I'm Too Tired, Achy, or Depressed to Have Sex?

When you aren't feeling well, you probably won't want sex. That's also known as being normal. For MSers, spasticity—when your legs spasm—may make it difficult to position yourself well for maximum enjoyment. Cory Martin, 40, of Venice Beach, CA, didn't want sex when she was diagnosed with MS at age 28. "I had spasticity that constantly served as a reminder that one day my body could fail me completely," Martin says. Doctors sometimes suggest having sex when you’re on your anti-spacticity meds. Otherwise, if they aren't severe, use the spasms to your advantage—they can be helpful for stimulating a partner with a tighter squeeze.

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I Have Trouble Maintaining an Erection. Am I Too Young for Viagra?

Erectile dysfunction is a top complaint among men with MS...but also among men without MS. If you need medication-related assistance, talk to your doctor, no matter your age. "There's no age limit on Viagra, young or old," Hendin says. "From talking to my patients, it's the younger men who ask more often. It's because sexual performance, sexual functioning, and the centrality of sexuality is so great in young adults." Oral medications (Viagra, Levitra, Cialis) can help men maintain erections. Vacuum erection devices (VEDs), implants and suppositories can help guys initiate erections when they don't happen on their own.

Why Can't I Feel Anything?

"Genital numbness is a very common symptom in men and women with MS, and it's caused by lesions in the spinal cord," says Frederick Foley, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology and psychosocial research at the Holy Name Medical Center Multiple Sclerosis Center in Teaneck, NJ. The numbness may relapse in some people or remain constant in others. The solution? If you have some sensation, increasing direct stimulation may help you experience pleasure. "Use vibrators that are more stimulating than intercourse [alone] would be," Foley says. One to try: We-Vibe (we-vibe.com), which comes with nine vibration settings and can be used alone or during sex.

What's Going on With This Vaginal Dryness?

"It's a very common symptom for women to have reduced vaginal lubrication and reduced clitoral engorgement," Foley says. With decreased sensation, your lubrication-producing cells don't get the message that you're ready to get busy. But you can maintain an amazing sex life, even with less lubrication. Using generous amounts of water-based lubricants (like gyno-recommended Lola Lube, mylola.com) can help, Foley says.

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Is It Normal to Have Trouble Reaching Orgasm?

Difficulty achieving an orgasm is common among both men and women with MS. It may be caused by MS lesions, reduced sensation, or side effects of medications. Antidepressants are often the culprit. "Depression is more common in MS than in any other central nervous system disease, and antidepressant use is very widespread in MS," says Foley. "So, we'll look at that, and we'll see if we can switch them to a different antidepressant." There are some like Wellbutrin (bupropion) and Remeron (mirtazapine) that have lower rates of sexual side effects.

Sometimes I Pee a Little Bit During Sex. Why Does This Happen?

With MS, brain messages that say "Hold it in!" can get scrambled, contributing to leaks during sex. It may only be a few drops, and your partner may not even notice, but you may be tempted to avoid sex if you're worried about a recurrence. "The biggest issues probably are the embarrassment and inhibition that it causes," Dr. Hendin says. Don't let your fear of a little pee derail your sex life! There are many things to try, including cutting back on liquids an hour or two before having sex, using the bathroom ahead of time, or taking medication for overactive bladder.

What If I Experience Dry Orgasm?

Sometimes, a man may experience the pleasurable sensation of orgasm without ejaculation, which is known as dry orgasm. This may occur in some men with MS, although it isn't very common. If you're satisfied with the sex, there's no need to see a urologist to determine the cause or seek a solution. "Unless you're trying to get your partner pregnant, it need not be an issue," Hendin says. "It's not dangerous." If you're ready to start a family, ask your doctor about assisted-reproductive technology, which is a kind of infertility treatment for men.

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Can MS Lower My Libido?

The short answer is yes. "Pre-diagnosis, I was totally healthy and enjoyed intimacy," Martin says. Decreased libido may be caused by vaginal dryness, an inability to maintain erections, or a power shift in your relationship, especially if you feel guilty or uncomfortable that your partner has become your caregiver.

"[The person with MS] may not feel sexy anymore, or they may feel that they are not the man or woman that they used to be," Foley says. You can help boost libido naturally by exercising or even experimenting with role-playing fantasies with your S.O. And if those changing dynamics are getting in the way, reach out to a therapist to work through them.

Is Sexual Desire Related to Self-esteem?

Some people with MS develop a negative self-image, either because they don't like how they look, they miss what they can't do anymore, or they feel like a burden on their partners. Like a domino effect, that bottomed-out self-esteem knocks your sex life down with it. Concentrating on what your body can do, and the pleasure that you can still experience, may help. Foley recommends "body-mapping" exercises, in which partners take turns touching each other from head to toe. The practice empowers partners by shining light on what feels good and what doesn’t—knowing these things is a huge confidence boost.

  • Sexual Problems in Men and Women Statistic: National MS Society. "Sexual Problems." nationalmssociety.org

  • Research About Talking to Physician About Sex Topics: Journal of Clinical Nursing. (2006). "A Comparison of Written Materials vs. Materials and Counselling for Women with Sexual Dysfunction and Multiple Sclerosis," ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

  • Bladder Dysfunction Info: Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. "Bladder Dysfunction." mymsaa.org

  • Extra Info on Body Mapping: National MS Society. "Intimacy and Sexuality in MS." nationalmssociety.orgs

Lisa Fields
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Fields

Lisa Fields is a full-time freelance health writer based in South Jersey who writes about chronic diseases, sleep problems and ways that stress and emotions can impact health. She writes frequently for WebMD and Reader’s Digest. She has also been published by The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Redbook and many other publications.