Headaches and Sex: "Yes, Tonight Dear"

Doctors discuss how sex can both cause and cure headaches.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 3:30 PM

Feb. 5, 2008 — -- Popular culture always sends us mixed messages about sex. First there was the old cliche of "not tonight dear, I have a headache," implying sex makes pain worse.

Then Marvin Gaye turned the tables on the sex-pain connection with his 1982 song "Sexual Healing."

So, who is accurate Gaye or the tired spouse? Does sex make or break a headache? Well both, say headache researchers, depending on the person and the headache.

Much of sex's influence on a headache remains shrouded in mystery, but doctors know a little and are discovering more.

In 1988, a forthright woman in a headache treatment study inspired an Oklahoma doctor to question the sexual healing of migraines.

"This lady said 'I really don't need a pill, I need a guy's phone number," said James Couch, a neurology professor at Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The patient told Couch she had trouble curing her headaches since her husband had divorced her and she'd signed up for a pain treatment study.

Couch thought this was interesting, in a scientific way, of course. "A physiologic process the climax is turning off another physiologic process," said Couch.

So he asked 84 other female migraine patients if they ever had sex during a headache and, if so, what happened?

Two out of three women reported having sex during a migraine those intense debilitating headaches characterized by nausea and sensitivity to light, or sound. Doctors estimate about 18 percent of women and 9 percent of men get migraines often.

Of the women who tried sex with a migraine, 61 percent reported some sort of relief. Not bad, compared to the latest migraine drugs called triptans, which might soothe 60 percent to 80 percent of headaches, says Couch.

Perhaps more intriguing to Couch was the reports that sex could sometimes stop a migraine dead in its tracks, instead of slowly dulling the pain. More than 20 percent of women reported that sex cured their migraines, while triptans might cure migraine in 30 percent of patients, says Couch.