Sex and lower back pain might be the perfect recipe for a screwball comedy, but both the pain and the fear of exacerbating it are very real downers for a couple's sex life. Take heart, though: A new guide to sexual positions could help improve the mood.
Somewhere around four in five people will experience serious back pain at least once in their lifetimes, and a third or more of those report that pain affects their sex lives, says Natalie Sidorkewitz, a doctoral student at the University of Waterloo's Spine Biomechanics Laboratory and lead author of a new study that takes a look at how men's backs move during sex.
After working with Waterloo kinesiology professor Stuart McGill as an undergraduate, Sidorkewitz worked for several years treating patients. Over time, those patients began to ask about the troubles their back pain was causing in the sack. "That was the first point where I started thinking about it," Sidorkewitz says, and soon she returned to Waterloo to pursue better options for those suffering lower back pain.
Specifically, better positions. Doctors and quite a few websites recommend having sex in a spooning or side-by-side position, but, Sidorkewitz and McGill write in Spine, that's not actually a very good idea.
To figure out what might be a boon in the bedroom, Sidorkewitz and McGill mounted motion-capture sensors similar to those used in special effects and video game production to the backs of 10 men. With those in place, the pair recorded the men and their female partners in the act, albeit in an experimentally controlled way. Each couple cycles through five positions — spooning, two varieties of missionary, and two varieties of what they referred to as "quadruped," in reference to the woman's position during sex.
Men who find bending forward painful, the team found, might benefit from the quadruped pose, which typically leads to a fair amount of back arching. Missionary — particularly if the man supports himself on his hands — and spooning followed quadruped in their ease. But that reverses for men with trouble arching their backs: Spooning is probably best, while quadruped might be a back killer.
Sidorkewitz says that the study does have some significant limitations. For one thing, the sexual positions they studied were all male-centric, meaning that the man was always on top — mainly because the sensors were on the man's back and wouldn't show up otherwise. For another, their published work so far has focused on ways to alleviate men's back pain during sex.
Studies already in the works should address those concerns. They've already collected data on women, Sidorkewitz says, which points to quite different results from men. They're looking at expanding the number of positions they study as well.
Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.
More from Pacific Standard...