Emotional impact of SCI on sexuality


The loss of sensation that often comes with a spinal cord injury (SCI) can lead to less enjoyable sex, fortunately, building an emotional connection can be the remedy

Most of sexual rehabilitation often become despondent when this is the following an SCI focuses on physical changes and alternatives, especially for males. The physical changes that people with SCI’s experience are more tangible and, therefore, often the primary area of concern for them.

While addressing the physical concerns will assist with some areas of sexuality (such as being able to get and maintain an erection and ejaculation), this doesn’t guarantee a satisfying sexual experience or relationship.

The emotional component of sex refers to feelings of intimacy and closeness with your partner. These aspects of a relationship are often neglected in evaluating the experience of sexual encounters.

According to the stereotype, men tend to place more emphasis on the physical aspects of sex while women often focus more on the emotional parts. Although this is not the case for everyone, it definitely accounts for a lot of disappointment and disconnect in romantic relationships.

According to the latest research on the emotional impacts of SCI on sexuality, some people have reported that with the decrease in sensation and physical function, they were “forced” to acknowledge the emotional components more. Suffering an SCI necessitates a redefinition of what is important in sexual relationships.

People who place the physical act of having sex in the centre of their evaluation of the relationship component that is most affected by their injury. They also struggle to adapt to the challenges that an SCI brings, especially to intimacy.

With an SCI comes the inevitable challenge of relearning how to do activities, often with a different approach. The same is true for sex and intimacy. A recent study found that one of the most important predictors of satisfaction in sexual relationships following an SCI is recognising and prioritising the emotional components.

The participants reported that they experienced significantly higher fulfilment in their relationships when they placed emotional connection and intimacy first (both on an emotional and physical level). Paradoxically, when you primarily focus on the physical aspects, it is often less enjoyable.

When you prioritise the emotional aspects, the physical experience of sex is enhanced with the emotional experience. This is not just the case in relationships where someone has an SCI but has been found to be equally true in other types of romantic relationships.

The core message from this research is that when it comes to sex, the journey makes the destination more enjoyable. Practically, this means that communication, foreplay, and other sexual acts apart from penetrative sex have much more impact on our experiences of sexuality than we often give it credit.


Dr Danie Breedt is a passionate scholar-practitioner in the field of psychology. He divides his time between training, research and clinical practice. Danie works from an integrative interactional approach in psychotherapy, dealing with a wide range of emotional difficulties and sexual rehabilitation for patients with disabilities. He is the co-owner of Charis Psychological Services, a psychology practice that specialises in physical rehabilitation across South Africa.


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