Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/28/2020
Sex and masturbation have a lot in common. They’re both pleasurable. They’re both good for our wellbeing and sexual health. And they’re both something that almost all of us do, although we may be slightly more forthcoming about the former than the latter.
If you find it difficult or time-consuming to reach orgasm during sex but easy to do so when you masturbate, you may be affected by something called death grip syndrome, or DGS.
Death grip syndrome isn’t a condition that you’ll find in medical textbooks. In fact, you won’t find it in any medical literature at all. It’s a slang term that describes a relatively common problem for men — being able to reach orgasm during masturbation, but not during penetrative sex.
The purported cause is right there in the name — an overly tight grip during masturbation that’s different from the feeling of vaginal or anal sex.
Below, we’ve described what death grip syndrome is, as well as the possible causes that might contribute to this anecdotal but seemingly common condition.
We’ve also talked about what you might be able to do to reverse death grip syndrome and make it easier to reach orgasm and enjoy sex with a partner.
“Death grip syndrome” is the name of an anecdotal phenomenon in which masturbating with an overly firm or aggressive grip is believed to cause penile densensitization and difficulty reaching orgasm during sex.
Although people aren’t exactly sure of where the term originated, most credit it to sex columnist Dan Savage and date the early 200s to its origins.
If you’re affected by death grip syndrome, you might find it fast and easy to reach orgasm when you masturbate, yet slow or impossible when you have sex. To reach orgam, you might need to pull out of your partner and masturbate in order to reach climax.
Death grip syndrome generally isn’t recognized as a medical condition. However, it’s a common anecdotal complaint amongst men that’s backed up by some scientific research. There are also several conditions similar to death grip syndrome, some of which are linked to masturbation.
The most similar of these is delayed ejaculation — a condition in which a man either can’t reach orgasm and ejaculate at all, or can only reach orgasm with significant effort after having sex for a long period of time.
The most common, well-known symptom of death grip syndrome is difficulty reaching orgasm and ejaculating during sex with a partner.
This may lead to secondary symptoms. For example, some men find that death grip syndrome or similar orgasm-related problems can lead to relationship issues, such as reduced feelings of intimacy or a preference for masturbation over sex.
The severity of death grip syndrome can vary from one man to another. You might find it almost impossible to reach orgasm during sex, or simply take longer and require more effort to have an orgasm during sex compared to masturbation.
The main purported cause of death grip syndrome is masturbating with an overly firm or harsh grip — a habit that many people believe might contribute to a reduced level of penile sensitivity and stimulation during sex.
Although there isn’t very much research on masturbation habits and penile sensitivity, there is some science to back up the idea that friction and pressure can affect your penis.
For example, studies of cyclists have found that the repetitive, continual pressure of cycling is linked to penile numbness and erectile dysfunction.
In a study from 2001, 61 percent of male cyclists reported experiencing genital numbness as a result of exercise. Nineteen percent of the cyclists with a long weekly training distance complained of erectile dysfunction, possibly as a result of their exercise habits.
While there’s obviously a significant difference between cycling and masturbation, the idea that friction and pressure affect genital sensitivity is supported by science to some extent.
Another study found that men who find masturbation more pleasurable than sex may continue to maintain unusual masturbation techniques, including those that apply extra pressure to the penis and reduce its sensitivity level.
Beyond an overly aggressive grip during masturbation, several other factors may contribute to a reduced level of penile sensitivity and difficulty reaching orgasm:
Medications. Some antidepressants, such as SSRIs, can reduce penile sensitivity and make it harder to reach orgasm. Other types of medications may affect the peripheral nerves and reduce sensitivity throughout your body.
Medical conditions. Several medical conditions, such as diabetes, Peyronie’s disease and thyroid issues, may contribute to reduced nerve function or sensitivity in your penis and other parts of your body.
Hormonal health issues like low testosterone may also cause a reduced level of interest and certain sexual performance issues.
Porn. Although watching porn won’t make your penis less sensitive, excessive use of porn is sometimes linked to changes in your sexual habits, performance and the main factors that make you feel sexually aroused.
For example, a study from 2016 found that men who watch porn frequently were more likely to think about porn while having sex in order to stay aroused — a factor that might be linked to difficulty reaching orgasm.
We’ve talked about the effects of porn on your sexual performance more in our guide to porn-induced erectile dysfunction.
Sexual performance anxiety. Feeling anxious before sex is a common issue that may be linked to masturbation and porn consumption. Research shows that anxiety causes or maintains many common forms of sexual dysfunction.
Many things can trigger sexual performance anxiety. You may feel anxious because of concerns about satisfying your partner, making your partner pregnant, or because of a previous traumatic sexual experience.
Sometimes, several of these factors may all contribute to difficulties reaching orgasm when you have sex with a partner.
Delayed orgasm, whether it’s caused by an overly tight grip while masturbating or another issue, is usually treatable. If you think you’re affected by death grip syndrome, try the following steps to physically and psychologically recondition yourself:
Try to avoid watching porn or masturbating for at least a week. Make an effort to avoid any form of sexual stimulation, except with your partner. Take it easy and try to focus on other aspects of your life in order to clear your mind.
After one or two weeks have passed, it’s okay to start masturbating again. Try to ease yourself into the process slowly. When you’re in the mood, try to let yourself get an erection without any manual stimulation, or let your partner help you instead of doing it yourself.
When you do masturbate, try to change your technique to avoid desensitizing your penis. Use a light grip and stroke your penis gently and slowly instead of firmly and fast. Use a lubricant when you masturbate to reduce friction and increase comfort.
Try not to overuse pornography. While porn isn’t necessarily bad for you, there’s some evidence that porn might have negative effects on certain aspects of your sexual performance.
Several studies have associated sexual performance issues in men with the rise of free, widely available online porn. Others have found that giving up porn may help to improve certain forms of sexual dysfunction.
If you watch porn often, try to either reduce your consumption or avoid porn altogether, at least for a few weeks. If you notice improvements in your ability to enjoy sex and reach orgasm with your partner, consider cutting down your porn consumption for the long term.
If you don’t notice any improvements after reducing your porn consumption and changing your masturbation habits, consider talking to your healthcare provider about any underlying medical issues that could affect your sexual performance.
For sexual performance anxiety, consider reaching out to a psychotherapist to talk about what you can do to relax before and during sex.
If you’re prescribed a type of medication that’s linked to sexual performance issues, such as an SSRI antidepressant, your healthcare provider may suggest switching to a different medication that’s less likely to affect your sex life.
Finally, if delayed ejaculation and death grip syndrome is affecting your relationship, try talking to your partner about the issue.
Working with your partner can often make relaxing and enjoying sex easier. For example, you may benefit from taking part in mutual masturbation with your partner before switching over to penetrative sex before you reach orgasm.
This can help you to relax during sex and become more familiar with the physical sensation of penetrative sex rather than masturbation.
If your sexual performance issues are caused by a problem in your relationship, talking openly can also help you to improve your connection, increase intimacy and make progress towards a better, more fulfilling sexual relationship.
There’s nothing wrong with masturbating. It’s a natural thing that, when performed the right way, won’t have any negative effects on your sexual desire or performance.
Although death grip syndrome isn’t a recognized medical condition, the idea that masturbating with an overly tight grip might affect your ability to enjoy sex isn’t totally devoid of merit. In fact, it’s backed up by a fair amount of scientific evidence.
If you find it difficult to reach orgasm during sex, try making the changes above to your porn and masturbation habits. Over time, you may notice that sex becomes more enjoyable and reaching orgasm feels more like a reward than a challenge.
If changing your habits doesn’t seem to work, talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll be able to help through different methods of therapy, medications and other treatment options.
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