Chronic Pain and Sex: a Couple's Gentle Battle With Fibromyalgia

For some couples, the persistent pain of fibromyalgia can make sex a challenge.

ByABC News
May 12, 2008, 6:31 PM

May 14, 2008— -- Cynthia Armistead, 41, is in nearly constant full-body pain. She has fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and severe arthritis, forcing her to take morphine to get through the day. And, on a pain scale of one to 10, a good day is a six.

Nevertheless, the Decatur, Ga., woman is determined to maintain a healthy sexual life with the love of her life, a man she met 10 years ago. And he is just as determined to make the adjustments necessary to keep their relationship going strong.

"There are times when the air on my skin hurts," Armistead says. "It's not just a disease of pain, it's a disease of hypersensitivity."

Doctors call this allondynia. It means that the brain interprets neutral or pleasant stimuli , like gentle touch or running water from a faucet , as pain. Patients also commonly experience hyperalgesia, which is an extreme reaction to painful stimuli.

Dr. Theresa Lawrence-Ford of Duluth, Ga., describes putting moderate pressure on one's fingernail bed to illustrate.

"It would take a patient half as much pressure to experience the feeling as someone without fibromyalgia," she says.

Women are about nine times more likely than men to experience fibromyalgia, according to the American College of Rheumatology, which also estimates that 6 million Americans, of 2 percent of the general population, are afflicted.

As for Armistead, the chronic pain and fatigue she suffers has forced her to abandon her career as a technical writer. But she has not given up on joy.

Ten years ago she fell in love with a man who is understanding of her condition, and willing to do whatever it takes to make their relationship continue to work.

"You really have to focus on the non-physical aspects of love when you're in a relationship with a person in chronic pain," says her partner, Sam Chupp, 40. "You have to concentrate on the mental and spiritual bond in order to carry you through times she has a flare [the worst period of pain]."