Chronic Pain and Opioids Impact Sexual Health

By Pat Anson, Editor

What’s more important to you?  Pain relief or an active sex life?

The question is not as frivolous as it sounds. According to a recent study published in Pain Medicine, chronic pain patients who take opioid medication are significantly more likely to experience a lack of desire and to be less satisfied with their sex lives, especially if they take opioids long-term.

Of course, anyone with a chronic illness is more likely to have sexual health issues – whether its desire, function or attracting another partner.  But the issues seem more pronounced with those who take opioids.  

Danish researchers surveyed over 11,500 randomly chosen adults. Slightly more than half the women and a little less than half the men said they suffered from chronic non-cancer pain.

Pain sufferers who did not use opioids were 38% more likely to be unhappy with their sex lives and 46% more likely to report a lack of desire than people who were pain free. So just being in pain is a big factor by itself.

But long-term opioid users were 69% more likely to report dissatisfaction with their sex lives and were twice as likely to experience low or no sexual desire.

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Short-term opioid users were 35% more likely to be unhappy with their sex life and 82% more likely to have less desire.

“Patients suffering from chronic non-cancer pain should be aware that it can have a negative impact on their sexual desire and satisfaction with sex life, and that using opioids, especially long-term, can add an additional negative impact on their sex life,” lead author Hanne Birke, an oncology researcher at Rigshospitalet (Copenhagen University Hospital) told Reuters.

Only 57 percent of people on long-term opioids reported having sex during the past year.  That compares to 62% of pain patients on short-term opioids, 68% of pain sufferers not taking opioids and 77% of people who were pain free.  

Short-term opioid use was defined as having one prescription filled in the previous year, while long-term use was having opioid prescriptions dispensed in at least six months during the previous year.

Chronic pain and opioid use has long been linked to sexual health problems.

“Chronic pain ‘highjacks’ sensory nerve fibers, thereby making it harder or impossible for pleasurable stimuli to elicit a response,” said Anne Murphy, a researcher at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who wasn’t involved in the study. “On top of that, opiates suppress the activation of sensory nerve fibers which would have an obvious impact on sexual pleasure.”

But many people who were pain free also reported sexual health issues. About 19% of men and 14% of women without chronic pain were unhappy with their sex lives. And 7% of men and 19% of women without pain reported a lack of sexual desire.