Sexual Health Q&A

How might multiple sclerosis affect a person sexually?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that affects the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. With multiple sclerosis, the body’s own immune system attacks the cells that make up the myelin sheath – a coating of cells that protects nerve cells. Damage to the myelin sheath makes it more difficult for messages to travel between the brain and other parts of the body. Such messages may move more slowly or they may not reach their destination at all.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, over 2.3 million people worldwide are affected by MS. 

The central nervous system is an important part of a person’s sexual response cycle. For example, when a man is sexually stimulated, a message from his brain triggers an erection for a penis. For a woman, the message triggers vaginal lubrication, getting her body ready for sex. Multiple sclerosis can interfere with these transmissions.

Other aspects of MS can contribute to sexual problems, too. People may feel fatigued, have trouble with bladder control, or have muscle spasms. Depression over changes in one’s sex life or relationship, anxiety about pleasing a partner, and illness-related stress are also common in people with MS.

For both men and women, reduced sex drive and trouble reaching orgasm are common issues. Some find that they don’t have as much sensation in their genitals as they did before they had MS.

Men may have trouble getting or keeping an erection (erectile dysfunction) or ejaculating. For women, insufficient lubrication is often a problem. This can make sex uncomfortable or painful.

Fortunately, many of the sexual problems associated with MS can be treated. For example, there are several treatments available for men with erectile dysfunction, such as medications, penile injections, vacuum devices, and suppositories – pellets of medicine that are placed in the urethra (the tube that allows urine and semen to leave the body). Women with vaginal dryness may find it helpful to use a lubricant.

Sex therapy is another option for men and women with MS along with their partners. A therapist can suggest sexual adjustments, like using a vibrator to aid stimulation. Therapists can also help couples talk openly with each other about their sexual concerns and needs.

Men and women are encouraged to discuss any sexual issues with their healthcare team. Sexuality is sometimes overlooked during MS treatment, but it is still an important part of life.