Rewiring communication

Even with a partial or complete loss of sensation below the level of injury, people with spinal cord injuries can still have full sex lives

Following a spinal cord injury, the communication system between the nerves, the spinal cord and the brain changes. For some people, this can cause a loss of all sensation below the level of injury, partial loss of sensation or the sensations can be misinterpreted all together. Different doesn’t have to mean bad. It’s just different and takes some time to figure out.

The feeling of sexual touch below your level of injury may not be as intense as it was before. However, sexual arousal can make the areas above the level of injury more sensitive (for example the ears, lips, back of the neck or back of the arms). Your other senses can also heighten these areas when touched.

It is easy to focus on what you don’t feel. This can prevent you from looking a bit closer and finding something new. There are many exercises that you can try (by yourself or with someone) to learn more about how your body has changed. Generally, these exercises involve becoming aware of how your body reacts to different types of touch.

Our brains have an amazing ability to rewire itself (called neural plasticity), which means that we can attach new meanings to sensations while in a sexual environment. The process does take some time though as it involves first “unlearning” what certain sensations mean and replacing it with new messages.

Over time, the connection is strengthened and the new message becomes the automatic response. It is quite normal to become frustrated with this process or even avoid addressing it altogether. The secret is to keep trying despite feeling like there isn’t any progress. In times of high stress, the tendency is to revert to familiar behaviours and avoid new experiences.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of high stress where people are reluctant to explore new experiences related to sexuality. This can often cause increased frustration, which leads to even more stress. Sexual activities can be a great reliever of stress, but, in a situation like this, it could easily have the opposite effect.

Many people with spinal cord injuries have reported having wonderfully fulfilling sex lives when they started focussing on sensations they have left and making the most of that instead of getting stuck on what they have lost. Making a deliberate effort to understand and connect with your body can potentially change your whole experience of intimacy.

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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