I woke up this morning before the sun came up, overcome with pain that had me struggling to find some way to situate my body that didn’t hurt. I tried my heating pads, an Epsom bath with arnica added, and deep stretching. But still pain radiated from within my spine, spreading into my shoulder blades and rib cage. I looked at my bedside table, cluttered with an assortment of medications, herbal remedies and salves, weighing the benefits of pain relief with the drawbacks of side effects such as fatigue or nausea.
And then I spotted my vibrator.
I’ve been living with chronic pain for several years now: fibromyalgia causing my skin to feel like it’s on fire, ankylosing spondylitis shooting pain through my hips and up my spine, and occipital neuralgia and migraines pounding and pushing behind my eyes. As a person with disabilities living with chronic illness, I’ve developed many strategies for dealing with symptoms and having multiple pain management tools at my disposal. What I never anticipated, though, was that my sex toys would be among those tools.
When I first began using orgasm as a pain management tool it was due to a mix of curiosity and desperation for anything to help, even temporarily. I’d read an article about another person with disabilities using masturbation for self-care. I also knew from my ventures into BDSM, that my pain tolerance during sex was much higher than my average tolerance. I wondered...if I could withstand (and enjoy) pain during sex with another person, what would sex with myself do for my pain tolerance?
And so, on a particularly bad pain day, I decided to give it a try. I grabbed my vibrator from its basket next to my bed, turned the switch to ‘on,’ and hoped for the best. To my surprise, it worked. While it is only one of many pain management tools I use, I discovered in that moment that orgasm is one of the most fast-acting things I can do for temporary relief of my pain, and as such, began using it a few times a week for a quick reduction in symptoms.
I wanted to find out why orgasming was so good for my pain management.
To learn, I recently spoke with two leading experts in the field of orgasm and pain management, Dr. Barry Komisaruk and Dr. Beverly Whipple.
Dr. Barry Komisaruk, neuroscientist, researcher, and co-author of the books The Science of Orgasm and The Orgasm Answer Guide, gave me some insight into just how and why this works.
Komisaruk, along with Dr. Whipple, conducted a study measuring how vaginal stimulation and orgasm impact pain thresholds. In this study, pain was measured using a device that applies increasing amounts of pressure on the finger. Study participants were asked to indicate when the pressure began to hurt. “During orgasm the amount of force increases by more than 100 percent of how much force it takes before they say that it hurts,” Komisaruk said, “We see that vaginal stimulation and orgasm produces analgesia, specific pain blockage.”
In other words, research shows that orgasm acts as a natural pain reliever.
Komisaruk states that women have reported using orgasm to help with their menstrual cramps, arthritic pain, and headaches, and research has been done by one of his students using vaginal stimulation and orgasm to alleviate leg and lower back pain.
Exactly how the body does that, though, turns out to be quite complicated and multi-faceted. Komisaruk explained that there is a mechanism in place in which certain regions of the brain stem inhibit pain by sending serotonin and norepinephrine into the spinal cord where these two neurotransmitters block incoming pain signals. For example, this mechanism is in place in soldiers who stay engaged in battle despite a serious wound or athletes who keep running while injured, neither noticing the pain until after the fact. “During orgasm,” Komisaruk states, “this system is activated and that could account for the blockage of pain.”
Using MRIs, Komisaruk and his fellow researchers also found two other locations in the brain which activate during orgasm. Interestingly, these are areas generally activated when someone is in pain. However, they believe that during orgasm these are likely lit up on the scan due to there being an inhibitory mechanism in place there “that’s also helping to block pain during orgasm.”
I was curious if these results only applied to orgasm through vaginal stimulation. The answer, as Komisaruk said, is yes and no. No, because orgasm, regardless of how it is achieved, will result in an increased pain threshold. However, even merely applying pressure to the anterior wall of the vagina (where the G-spot is located) causes a 50 percent increase in pain threshold. Pressure on the clitoris, on the other hand, provides none.
Komisaruk explained that the clitoris, vaginal wall, and cervix all have different sensory pathways to the brain, projecting to different places in the sensory cortex, which means they are “stimulating different nerve cells.” Therefore, orgasms originating in each of these locations will impact a person differently. Komisaruk said: “If [people] stimulate all three regions concurrently they’ll be stimulating a larger population of nerve cells in the brain. Combining stimulation of the three different regions could produce a more complex and intense orgasm... Potentially the more intense the orgasm, the stronger the pain blockage.”
This was news to me, as in all my times using orgasm for pain management, I’d only used clitoral stimulation. I mentioned this to Dr. Komisaruk.
“Oh yes,” he replied, “Try vaginal. Use a dildo and do a combination [orgasm]; see if it’s more effective.”
I asked Dr. Beverly Whipple about the same thing when speaking to her. Whipple is a sex educator, sexuality counselor, and researcher. She helped to identify and name the G-spot, and is the author of multiple publications including The G-Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality.
“Whatever works for you is what I recommend,” she said. While vaginal stimulation was what the original research was based on, she explained that in additional research, they “found out about all the other ways that pleasurable stimulation and orgasm also help block pain.”
But, she asked: “Do you have pleasure when you orgasm?”
I had to admit that no, when using it for pain management I often didn’t. It was much more a tool, less of a pleasurable experience.
Whipple said that the pleasure is just as important in using orgasm in pain management.
“We found a much greater significance in elevation in pain thresholds when [participants] found the stimulation and the orgasm pleasurable.”
I explained to her that when my pain levels were high I didn’t feel aroused, or sexual, or any of the things I’d want to feel before normally masturbating or having sex with a partner. It simply is a bit hard to get “in the mood” when dealing with pain.
Whipple acknowledged that’s often the case. Her advice to those of us in pain, and struggling to get in the mindset of pleasure? “To know their bodies and how they experience orgasm. Don’t look at the goal of reaching it, but the goal of experiencing pleasure.”
Despite using orgasm for pain relief for several years now, after talking to Komisaruk and Whipple, I realized that I could be doing things to make my masturbation even more effective (and enjoyable).
So this morning when I looked over and spotted my vibrator, I also grabbed my dildo and prepared myself, not for an orgasm, but for a pleasurable experience in my body, whatever that may look like. Several minutes later, I sighed. Not just a sigh of satisfaction, but also a sigh of relief. My pain was, blissfully, significantly reduced. I was able to get up out of bed and start my day. Now, over two hours later, my pain is still at bay.
So now, along with medications, heating pads, salves, and physical therapy, I’m adding an unexpected addition to my collection of pain management tools: my vibrator and dildo. And when my pain is high, as well as reaching for my pill bottle and a glass of water, I also reach for a natural pain reliever...some neurotransmitters, courtesy of my sex toys.