Any serious injury to the spine can affect the body in many different ways. While one of the major symptoms of a complete spinal cord injury (SCI) is loss of sensation and movement below the injury area, a patient may also struggle with bladder and bowel control, blood pressure problems and issues such as spasticity.
Often, a significant concern for those with an SCI is what impact the injury may have on their sexual function.
After a spinal cord injury, the individual may have to contend with loss of movement and sensation as well as interference to what were previously considered as normal sexual reflexes. A lot can depend on the seriousness of the injury, of course, as well as the person’s own emotional makeup.
Here we take a closer look at how sexual function can be affected following a spinal cord injury and what this means for the individual in question.
The ability to get an erection is important to men, but a spinal cord injury may result in this area of their sexual function being disrupted in several ways.
The ability to simply think about something related to sex and get an erection, for instance, may be inhibited because signals are not getting transmitted effectively from the brain beyond the point of injury.
Erections may also occur as a reflex, perhaps when a catheter is being changed or when the bladder is full. This can lead to frustration and the sense that everything is not working properly or can’t be controlled.
Ejaculation can also be a cause of concern. With complete spinal cord injuries, very few men report being able to ejaculate at all but many do report that they are able to have an orgasm.
There are certainly changes in respect of sexual function that men may need to overcome. An SCI can mean essentially learning to have sex all over again and adjusting expectations in line with what is possible and what is not.
It’s not all bad news for an individual with a spinal cord injury. Those who approach their sexuality with an open mind and are prepared to experiment are more likely to find solutions. Sex is not just a physical response to an external stimulus, there is a huge psychological component as well.
Female sexual function after a spinal cord injury has a number of complications including the relationship with reproductive elements of the body.
A woman who has an SCI may find their period stops, at least in the short term (it often returns later). When using sanitary products, care needs to be taken to avoid issues such as infection or toxic shock. Fertility is not always affected by a spinal cord injury and pregnancy is certainly a possibility but this also brings challenges.
Birth control is another issue. Birth control pills can increase the risk of developing blood clots, a problem that is exacerbated by the immobility caused by the injury itself.
Women may experience changes to their physiology in relation to sexual intercourse. For example, the vagina may not lubricate properly, though this can be overcome by using products like KY Jelly to ease penetration.
There will need to be a period of adjustment following a spinal cord injury and again openness and a willingness to experiment are key. There are other areas of the body that can be stimulated to produce a sexual response and, indeed, some women experience heightened sensitivity in areas above the location of their injury.
Is sex possible following a spinal cord injury? The answer in many cases is yes, for both men and women.
With most individuals who have an SCI, it takes a little time to become comfortable with the limitations of their body and begin to explore again. Practical solutions like making sure the bladder is empty before sexual contact and having lubricant available are helpful but it often comes down to being prepared to explore the options.
It is often like learning to have sex with a partner all over again:
Sexual enjoyment and sexuality are important parts of the human psyche and a spinal cord injury doesn’t make this any less true. Yes, there will be challenges to overcome but taking time and effort to explore things can make a huge difference.
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