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Sex Health Blog

Adjusting to Spinal Cord Injury

Jul 27, 2011

If you have a new spinal cord injury (SCI), you know you have a lot of adjustments to make. You might wonder how your injury will affect your romantic and sexual life, especially if you’re looking for a partner. When should you tell someone about your disability? How do you handle the changes in your body? What should you do when it’s time for your first sexual encounter?

SCI does not signal the end of your romantic life. Quite the opposite: you might find that an exciting relationship is right around the corner. A lot of that is up to you, however.

In this post, we’ll look at some concerns people with spinal cord injury have about dating and sex. We’ll also hear from people with SCI who have shared their experiences online. Many, but not all, come from forums held by the Northwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury System, associated with the University of Washington.

Meeting Partners

It can be tough to meet new people under the best of circumstances. With a disability, you might be concerned about people’s reactions.

The same strategies for meeting people still apply. Socialize with friends, take classes, or volunteer in your community. Ask friends and family to introduce you to others.

Online dating is another option. You may choose a general dating website or one specifically geared toward people with disabilities.

When you choose to disclose your disability is your call. Some prefer to wait. But others get it out in the open immediately. Tiffiny Carlson, a 28-year-old quadriplegic, recommends this.

I like to call it the ‘weed out the bad ones right away’ approach. By disclosing my quadriplegia right away, I never waste my time pursuing a guy who will never be able to come to terms with my disability.


On their dating profiles, some people include pictures of themselves in their wheelchairs, having fun and being active. Others mention activities they enjoy, like working out or handcycling. This shows others that their disability isn’t slowing them down.

Body Image

It’s normal to feel anxious about your body. There are all sorts of changes to get used to – visual ones like scars and internal ones like bowel or bladder issues. How will a partner react to someone who is “different,” especially when it’s time to be intimate?

Remember that in spite of the injury, you are you. None of us have perfect bodies and, as the cliché goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A partner who wants to be with you will focus on what they value and cherish in you. Any partner who can’t get past your disability isn’t worth your time.

Many forum participants in Washington stressed the importance of communication when it comes to bodily issues and sexuality. When the time is right, you can explain to your partner how your body functions sexually and what feels good. You might need to experiment yourself with masturbation to discover more about this.

You can frankly explain what could happen during sex, such as urinary accidents or erection problems. Spontaneous sex might be more difficult, or you may need to use equipment like a vacuum pump.

It can be an awkward conversation, for sure. But keep in mind that the right partner will be want to be intimate with you, no matter what the challenges are.

Here’s what Susan, a forum participant in Washington, had to say about being the partner of a man with SCI:

Nick is really open with his feelings. He lets you know what he needs and wants, what he can and can’t feel. He made me feel really comfortable when he told me, ‘this isn’t going to hurt me,’ or ‘I can’t feel this.’ He was honest and forthcoming from the very beginning.

Amy, another forum participant, explained how her partner with SCI helped her:

One thing he did for me that was really helpful was give me some materials to read that talked about sex after SCI, the actual bladder and bowel stuff and how that works.


Putting your partner at ease will alleviate some of the anxiety, making the experience more pleasurable for both of you.

Rejection and Prejudice

Disability or not, we all get rejected. It’s part of dating and part of life. You will likely meet people who are unable to handle dating someone with SCI. They might make inappropriate comments or think you can’t take care of yourself. Those are their issues, not yours.

Remember that for all those types, there are many more people who will want to know you and be with you. Here’s a brief story about another forum participant in Washington:

Louisa’s first boyfriend broke up with her after her injury because she was not a ‘whole person.’ After that, she said, ‘I didn’t date for two-and-a-half years.” Today, after going to college and having a successful long-term relationship, she has learned that there are many people who don’t care about her disability. In fact, she herself keeps it firmly in perspective. ‘I would rather be in a wheelchair than in a lot of other people’s experiences.”


Put Yourself Out There

It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Building confidence takes time. Start with your friends and family, who know you well. Then, branch out. Show others that you’re confident in who you are.

We’ll let Washington forum panelist Brad sum it up:

Everybody, whether in a wheelchair or not, has to deal with insecurities. In some ways the insecurities are more visible (for people with disabilities). For the most part, dating (after injury) is still dating. You date a few people before you find the right one. The wheelchair didn’t have that much to do with whether a relationship lasted or not; it was all about the personalities.

You need to ask yourself: what do you want? What makes you happy? What do you search for in a relationship? And just go get it. It all starts inside yourself. It’s that simple.”