Love & Sex

Why Orgasms Are My Painkiller of Choice

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Why Orgasms Are My Painkiller of Choice

Vaginal stimulation doubles a woman's threshold for pain. Believe me, I learned the painful way.

By Leigh Lumford

Rats, dildos, and I have a lot in common. On a recent trip to Mexico with my boyfriend I finally discovered the full power of the female orgasm. No, he didn't just locate my G-spot, but after I injured myself pretty gruesomely on our trip, I remembered some hearsay science about dulling pain by focusing on the memory of an orgasm. I tried, and well, I believed that the technique worked and because I wasn't looking to be cynical, I didn't question whether it was a placebo effect. However, today I learned that my emergency last resort is actual science. In a feature on The Atlantic, decades of research have come together to explain how orgasms dull pain. And as with all science, rats take the brunt of the testing which, in this case, doesn't seem so bad.

Rutgers University psychology professor Barry Komisaruk has been studying the connection of women, pleasure, and pain for the more than 50 years. He started with doves by studying hormone production and behavior. In the 1970s, Komisaruk got a little weird as he went on to study how sex hormones affect neurons in his rat test subjects by using a glass dildo. (Makes watching that tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito seem a little less exciting, no?).  The "pleasure centers" of rats brains were tested with vaginal stimulation and simultaneously inflicting minor pain with a pinch of the foot. There is a natural response to pull away from the pinch but when Komisaruk inserted the tiny dildo in the rat's vagina, "it became immobilized and went into the mating posture. Rats only mate every five days, on their cycle, but these female rats went into mating posture immediately upon vaginal stimulation at all stages of their cycle. When Komisaruk pinched their feet, that crucial pain response did not occur," tells The Atlantic.

Let's get back to my brilliant trip and how I am no different than Komisaruk's rats.

My boyfriend lives in Mexico doing research for his dissertation. Our romantic reunion to the remote area of Oaxaca on the Pacific coast was to be a major indulgence in all things love. But real life intervened. In our haste to get cocktails on the first day, I stubbed my fourth toe on some rocks we were crossing. Blood immediately began gushing out of my foot and I saw white which prompted an immediate lightheaded feeling. My inner monologue went something like this, "Why did you look at it, now you're going to go into shock! Okay, don't think about the pain, think about sex. Sex sex sex sex. That's not working well enough. Replay last night with Dave in your head, focus on that thing he did with his tongue. Yep, got it, hold that feeling in your brain, Tongue tongue tongue." The rats only received a pinch, but I ripped off three quarters of my toe nail and a bit of flesh. Also, I kid you not, it was my birthday.

Komisaruk couldn't ask the rats pivotal questions about the pain so he eventually began similar experiments with human women. Along with Dr. Beverly Whipple, Komisaruk began compressing women's fingers gradually while they masturbated manually. The results were that women more than doubled their tolerance for pain with vaginal self-stimulation. Their findings revolutionized women's anatomy and sexuality studies. In a later study, they found a baby exiting the womb stimulates the G-spot which effectively tunes up a woman's threshold to pain. These findings explain the probable reason childbirth isn't as painful as it could be and subsequent bonding between mother and child.

Once I could fully assess the damage to my toe, it became clear that some self-surgery was in order or I'd need to find a doctor in this rural town where English isn't spoken. I chose option A and sent Dave to scrounge our bags for my eyebrows scissors, his toe nail clippers, hand sanitizer, self-adhesive bondage tape and a t-shirt. MacGyver wishes he was this good. Every grotesque snip required a great deal of energy devoted to meditating about cunnilingus. Once my toe, herein known as Peggy, was wrapped up and cleaned, my dirty thoughts had made me ready to jump back into the sack. Throughout the rest of our trip, the best painkiller seemed to be sex. Showering was particularly hard, but we just strapped a condom on my foot and kept the party going. In those raw first days Dave kept asking whether my toe hurt, but to be honest, with my leg angled off the bed and my constant state of arousal, I didn't feel anything. Little did I realize that my brain and my lady parts are so connected.

The intense neurological effects go way beyond a busted toe. In the 1980s, Komisaruk and Whipple's studies also proved women with certain spinal cord injuries could feel pleasure through vaginal and cervical stimulation. 

Today Komisaruk and his team continue mapping the genitals in both men and women to the brain. "Today we are focusing on genital pain and a number of very distressing genital pathologies," Komisaruk told The Atlantic. The internet spews "science" at us everyday, but Komisaruk is the real thing. Science isn't meant to be a quick answer to all questions, but rather to build on itself. Hopefully Komisaruk's research will continue to enlighten my brain about the female orgasm, and be there the next time I horrifically injure myself.

[h/t The Atlantic]

Image via Zentropa Entertainments.