Objectives: The primary aim of this research was to assess patients' perceptions of the effects of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) on their sexual relationship and sexual activity, the causes of any difficulties and who they would turn to for help.
Methods: A self-report questionnaire was distributed to 74 patients attending a regional rheumatology clinic and returned by prepaid post. Fifty-nine questionnaires were returned (response rate 80%) and 57 of them were usable.
Results: Thirty-five per cent of the cohort thought that their disease strained their relationship with their partner, and reasons for this included curtailment of daily and social activities, changes in the balance of the relationship, emotional changes and changed financial circumstances. Over half (56%) of the patients found that their arthritis placed limitations on sexual intercourse and the principal reasons cited were fatigue and pain. Sexual ability was important to 58% of the sample and ageing had a negative impact on its importance (P<0.005). Poor communication was a major problem, patients being reluctant to approach health professionals and vice versa. The topic of sexual relationships was broached with patients attending one nurse practitioner's clinic, but only one other patient had ever been offered any discussion. Thirty-nine per cent of the cohort would consider talking to someone if they had a problem and the nurse and the doctor were the professionals most often chosen.
Conclusion: RA impacts on the sexual lives of a large minority of patients and this is a problem that patients and health professionals are reluctant to discuss face to face. However, patients do appear to be willing to complete questionnaires and this may be an acceptable format for assessment. Further training and support is needed by nurses and other health professionals in this sadly neglected area.