Is This Normal? is a weekly series that addresses everything you've ever wondered about sexual health and your body. This week: numbness during sex.
In any other context, most of what happens to your body during sex would be cause for concern. Weird breathlessness, shaky legs, slight dizziness ...These are basically just symptoms of a seizure. But during sex, or right before a particularly good orgasm, these are things you kind of actually want.
There's one thing that can happen, though, that's so alarming it can take you out of the moment and straight into a WebMd hole that inevitably results in being pretty sure you have vagina cancer and you have six weeks to live, mom. For some people, sexual arousal comes with tingling, a pins-and-needles feeling, or numbness in their legs, hands, lips, and vulvas. To figure out whether or not your temporary loss of feeling is the sign of a truly #blessed orgasm, or a sign that something bigger might be wrong, Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Dr. Maureen Whelihan, a fellow with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, about what's really going on when your orgasm leaves you tingly.
BABE, I CAN'T FEEL MY HANDS
Tingly fingertips or toes or lips (on your face) is a totally normal part of a sexual response. "Tingling in a region of the body is a nerve-related sensation," Dr. Whelihan told Cosmopolitan.com. "As the nerve endings are being stimulated during sexual arousal, one might feel a tingling sensation." All your nerves are aflame during sex, and even nonsexual parts of your body can join in on the stimulation.
This tingly feeling can sometimes be misinterpreted as going numb, but it's really hypersensitivity. Dr. Whelihan compared that hypersensitivity to the way your clit, or the head of a penis, might feel right after orgasm — even a light touch can be too much to handle. You need time to chill out a bit. Sometimes your hands or feet can feel this same hypersensitivity, which Whelihan attributed to the neurochemicals involved in arousal.
You might have felt this before—or maybe you do every single time you have sex. It can feel almost like TV static in your toes. (If this is you and you want to compare notes with some fellow hypersensitive people, check out this thread on Reddit.) If everything in your body is normal and healthy and good, Dr. Whelihan said that this tingly feeling should subside within a few seconds after orgasm, during that brief cool down period. Consider it part of your orgasm.
Dr. Whelihan also clarified that this isn't a super common complaint — not because people aren't feeling it on a regular basis, necessarily, but because it's a sort of subtle part of an otherwise intense experience. That means it's hard to know exactly how many people experience lil tingles.
WHEN TINGLING ISN'T NORMAL
Some people describe the tingly feeling as "numbness," which Dr. Whelihan said is a slightly different complaint. If your special little tingle doesn't feel so special anymore and starts to feel painful, like when your leg falls asleep, or is lasting for hours after sex, that's a sign something might be wrong. The resulting condition is called neuropathy, and it's caused by a few different things.
"Numbness and tingling, as a general physical condition, has been reported before, and the common causes are cardiovascular abnormalities and diabetes," Dr. Whelihan said.
Dr. Whelihan added she sees women who experience numbness or tingling after orgasm more often than men. "I would guess that women would report this occurrence more than men because they... tend to have more awareness of their body sensations," she said. Which, maybe?
But just because women might be reporting it more, doesn't mean this numb sensation affects one sex more than another. Neuropathy is relatively common and affects about 2.4 percent of the population. Anyone who feels lasting tingling or numbness during and after sex (or any other physical activity, really) should talk about it with a doctor.
WHEN YOUR VAGINA GOES NUMB
Vulvar numbness—not tingling due to hypersensitivity or numbness in your hands or feet, but actual complete lack-of-feeling in your vagina—is something different, and is also cause for a doctor's visit. It's also, according to Dr. Whelihan, a bit more common than tingly hands and fingers. "This is not an uncommon complaint," she said. "A lot of patients will say something like, 'I want to want sex but I feel absolutely nothing down there, it's blank, I don't get wet, I don't get sensation, nothing.'"
The usual course of action for women and men who have a physical problem (like diabetes) that prohibits sexual arousal, or who are on medication (like antidepressants) is to either change up the medical routine, or prescribe something like Viagra to fix the lack of response. Studies have shown that even women report better sexual response with Viagra, because it dilates blood vessels. But Dr. Whelihan said numbness, or total lack of physical sexual arousal, can also come from an emotional response after something like sexual assault or trauma, and Viagra isn't going to fix that.
"If there's been a sexual assault and someone can't get aroused anymore and feels numb, it's often because they're suppressing sexual thoughts or feelings because something in their body is reminding them of the assault," she said. "It's almost like a post-traumatic stress response to sexual assault." Dr. Whelihan said that, in those cases, therapy and counseling can cure the arousal disorder and help patients feel something again.
In other words: Not being able to feel anything down there — even though you may really think you want sex — isn't a healthy response. It's abnormal but not uncommon. There are things you can do to get help, and the first step is to talk about it with your doctor.