Detailed, evidence-based help for common painful problems

Sex and back pain

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Sexy question from a back pain patient:

I seem to be able to handle more exercise when the exercise is sex, as opposed to working out. Is there any research on why this might be so? Happy chemicals canceling out the pain chemicals?

No research that I know of. (It’s hard to compare sex to a placebo.) I wouldn’t say so much happy “chemicals” specifically cancelling out pain as just the happy cancelling out the pain. Sex is absurdly uplifting, and mood is a well-known mediator of pain (plenty of research about that).

Pain is a motivator. It exists to get us to act. We hurt when our brains think we need to do something differently for safety, if possible. Our brains are willing to “mute” many danger signals for the sake of sex … because it’s worth it, baby. “Muting” is technically called descending inhibition, which Todd Hargrove describes like this in his excellent book, A Guide to Better Movement:

… the brain does not want to discourage the activity that is creating the nociception, and therefore decides to simply block the danger signals. Descending inhibition may be the mechanism that explains why many people do not feel pain from degenerative changes in joints, bulging discs, or torn rotator cuffs. It also likely explains why pain is often not felt during an emergency.

Or sex.

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