Understanding Huntington's and Parkinson's diseases | IU Health Neuroscience
How Parkinson's Disease Affects Couples
With Parkinson's disease, roles may change and sex can become a thing of the past — if you let it. But with some effort, you and your partner can maintain intimacy despite this debilitating illness.
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Parkinson's disease can be tough on a committed relationship. Since Parkinson's symptoms are often debilitating and unpredictable, couples may find that both their expectations for themselves and each other are forced to change unexpectedly. Moreover, difficulties in sexual function brought on by the disease can further compromise intimacy.
Parkinson’s Disease: Effects on a Relationship
When people are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, their partners share much of the emotional impact. Long-term concerns about possible complications of the disease, side effects of treatment, and the potential toll on finances may all rush to the forefront. As Parkinson's symptoms worsen, the healthy partner may have to take on roles and responsibilities previously held by his or her loved one. This can lead to resentment within the relationship and can leave the person with Parkinson's feeling as if he or she is no longer able to contribute in a meaningful way.
Sexual Effects of Parkinson’s Disease
In addition to the emotional effects of Parkinson's, the disease also has a direct impact on a person's ability to function sexually. Parkinson's can affect sexuality by:
- Limiting a person's ability to perform physically due to tremors, weakness, or muscle rigidity
- Causing erectile dysfunction in men and vaginal dryness in women
- Leading to symptoms of depression and anxiety that dampen libido
Parkinson's can also have significant effects on the sexuality of the healthy partner. New demands brought on by caring for a loved one with a chronic illness can lead to fatigue, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and depression — all of which may curb the desire for physical intimacy.
Parkinson's disease medications can have an impact on sexuality as well. Some Parkinson's drugs may reduce libido and make it more difficult to achieve orgasm. Other Parkinson's therapies, such a L-dopa, may actually rev up sexual desire to an extent that some couples find it difficult to navigate.
Parkinson’s Disease: Maintaining Intimacy
Communication is critical to overcoming the relationship obstacles created by Parkinson's disease. Patience and sensitivity are important as well. Partners need to talk about their feelings as openly as possible to maintain and enhance their sense of trust in one another. Being able to voice concerns can also help offset resentment.
Other strategies couples can try to help restore and protect their intimacy include:
- Finding innovative, non-sexual ways to express love and admiration for each other.
- Focusing on other intimate acts such as kissing and touching, rather than solely pursuing sexual intercourse.
- Thoroughly discussing the sexual effects of the patient's Parkinson's medications during doctor's appointments to learn how to better manage sexual side effects.
- Undergoing couples’ counseling with a therapist who specializes in sexual issues related to chronic illness. The therapist may also be able to treat depression or other mood disorders that are compromising either partner's sexuality.
Dealing with any chronic illness can take a toll on a relationship. Parkinson's disease can be that much more challenging since its symptoms can worsen swiftly and without warning. Even so, with guidance from the patient's medical team and a sense of mutual understanding and appreciation, couples can maintain, and even enhance, their bond despite this difficult diagnosis.
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