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Sexuality and Chronic Pain: Lymphedema

Sexuality is an integral part of human well-being, yet for individuals living with chronic conditions such as lymphedema, the journey to maintain a fulfilling sex life can be challenging. Sexuality and chronic pain Lymphedema, a condition characterized by swelling due to the accumulation of protein-rich fluid, can affect various parts of the body, including the genitals.

This article delves into the ways lymphedema can disrupt sexual health and provides practical suggestions for navigating intimacy while managing this condition. By understanding the impact of lymphedema on one's sex life and seeking sex-positive support, individuals can foster a sense of empowerment and reclaim their sexual well-being. 

What is Lymphedema

Lymphedema refers to tissue swelling caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that's usually drained through the body's lymphatic system. It most commonly affects the arms or legs, but can also occur in the chest wall, abdomen, neck and genitals.” – Mayo Clinic.

Some folks are born with lymphedema, and many acquire it through cancer treatment, lymph node removal, radiation therapy, and other major health moments, so it’s often a symptom/result of a transformative process. 

Lymphedema can Disrupt your Sex Life in Several Possible Ways 

Pain

Swelling and pain associated with lymphedema can cause discomfort during sexual activity, making it difficult to find comfortable positions or engage in certain types of touch.  Depending on the affected area, you might also find that some positions are aggravating for the condition. Fatigue often accompanies pain, so you might have a sense of depletion energetically as well. 

Mobility

Lymphedema may lead to reduced range of motion and flexibility, which could affect the ability to engage in certain sexual activities or positions. This can occur through the swelling that folks experience and also through cording, when the body manifests tight bands of connective tissue that can significantly limit one’s ability to move. 

Body Image

Lymphedema can cause significant changes to the appearance of the affected limb(s), leading to feelings of self-consciousness or a negative body image. This may affect a person's confidence and willingness to engage in sexual activity.   

Emotional/Relational

Because it’s a disability, living with lymphedema can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, or stress, which can negatively impact sexual desire and overall sexual well-being. Managing lymphedema sometimes requires lifestyle adjustments and ongoing medical care, which can create stress within a relationship.  

Managing Sexuality and Chronic Pain while Living with Lymphedema

So what can you do to support your sexual health while living with lymphedema? Here are some ideas

Seek Sex-Positive Support

A sex-positive context is one that seeks to eliminate shame and to cultivate kindness in an inclusive environment with NO coercion or force.  A sex-positive framework is one that will NOT make you wrong for feeling stress or challenges around your lymphedema and how it’s impacting your sex life.   

Prioritize comfort

Remember – Lymphedema is mechanical, so if there’s a way for you to engage with your partner while ALSO keeping your affected zone comfy – that’s a fantastic place to be! Experiment with different positions or sexual activities that minimize discomfort and make intimacy more enjoyable. Using pillows or cushions for support may help alleviate pressure on affected areas. 

Cultivate Body-Neutrality

Body Neutrality is a concept rooted in radical acceptance.  A Body Neutral attitude towards lymphedema might say: “I’m not thrilled about it, and I accept that I have lymphedema I need to manage”.   

Think Outside the Box

Consider the infinite ways to connect with your partner, such as sensual massages, cuddling, foot rubs, mutual masturbation, bubble baths, watching adult media you both enjoy together.  

Not All Intimacy Requires Sex

Here are some ‘not sex’ things you can do with your partner to increase intimacy and connection without obligating yourself to intercourse: 

  • Experiment with touch – use different fabrics and items from around your space, and see how you like to touch/be touched by them.  Think silk scarf across the back, or using the handle of a big spoon to draw designs on your partner’s back.  
  • SnuggleHug – The Hug partner is the base, and you’ll sit cross-legged on the floor/bed or in a cozy chair.  The Snuggle partner will place themselves on the Hugger’s lap and receive an embrace filled with loving kindness.  Sit there together, hugging and notice if your breathing changes.   Some folks like to switch right away, while others will take turns based on preference.  You’ll find the way that works best for you. 
  • Sway together – From a Standing SnuggleHug position, keep your feet about shoulder width apart, and the Hugger will also add a bit of a gentle sway for the Snuggler – perhaps put on some music and leave some space for a little dance? 
  • Foot Bath – the partner with lymphedema receives this from their partner, who is offering loving kindness and positive regard with the foot rubs.  You could pull out a reflexology chart and experiment with that if you’d like. 

Your Sexuality and Chronic Pain

In conclusion, lymphedema can present various challenges to one's sex life, but it doesn't have to mean the end of intimacy and connection. By seeking sex-positive support, prioritizing comfort, cultivating body neutrality, and thinking outside the box, individuals with lymphedema can continue to enjoy a fulfilling and satisfying sexual relationship with their partner. Embracing new ways of connecting, experimenting with touch, and fostering an environment of loving kindness can help couples maintain a strong bond despite the challenges lymphedema might present. Remember, the journey towards sexual well-being is unique to each individual, so be patient with yourself and your partner as you navigate this path together. 


Image of Katherine ZitterbartArticle by Katherine Zitterbart

Katherine is a multidisciplinary – multimedia educator, facilitator, and healing artist whose work centers Sexuality, Somatics and Sound Healing.  She works primarily with folks in the LGBTQIA+, chronic illness/pain, and Neurodivergent communities – as well as folks in helping roles.  Katie sees people in person in Pittsburgh PA, and online everywhere.

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