Death Grip Syndrome: What It Is & How to Treat It

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Geoffrey Whittaker

Updated 27/07/2023

Sex is great, but if you’ve tried masturbation, you already know that it’ll do in a pinch. Unfortunately for some men who squeeze a little too tight when they’re going solo, the “pinch” might not be a celibate weekend or a self-indulgent Sunday morning — it might be the cause of some intimacy problems.

The phenomenon known as death grip syndrome is pretty self-explanatory, but we’re going to explain it several times below to give you information, so bear with us. Death grip syndrome is really just a nonscientific name to describe the consequences of masturbating with too tight of a grip on yourself.

Guys who squeeze too hard and self-stroke with an extremely tight grip may worry that they're injuring themselves, desensitizing their penis, causing nerve damage or changing the sexual fabric of space-time. And you may be wondering how much of that is based on real science.

Below, we’ve described what death grip syndrome is, shared what little science is behind it and looked at the possible causes that might contribute to it. We’ve also talked about what you might do to reverse death grip syndrome and make it easier to reach orgasm and enjoy sex with a partner again — because your hand is always by your side, but not the only person you want to spend your time with.

What is Death Grip Syndrome?

Death grip syndrome isn’t a condition that you’ll find in any medical literature. 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. 

It’s unclear where the term originated — some credit it to sex columnist Dan Savage in the 2000s, so do with Google what you will here, fellas.

The science behind death grip syndrome doesn’t really exist — at least not anywhere we trust. But the basic thought is that an overly firm or aggressive grip may cause penile desensitization, which can make it more difficult to reach orgasm during sex. 

There’s no official criteria or test, but many men worry if they’ve caused some damage with their grip style. 

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 orgasm, you might need to pull out of your partner and masturbate in order to reach climax.

The best approximation of death grip syndrome in medical literature dates to a 2015 article on a condition called anorgasmia (the inability to orgasm) and delayed orgasm. The authors noted that men can sometimes suffer from both problems due to their masturbation habits — that masturbation may be a more enjoyable sensation than intercourse with a partner, causing some intimacy issues. 

Symptoms of Death Grip Syndrome

That study didn’t mention death grip syndrome by name (probably because medical literature isn’t written to be read over beers in a sports bar), but it pointed to a number of potential symptoms of sexual health issues that would fit the description.

They included:

Yes, some of those are hilarious, but the rest can be serious, and can cause a lot of stress in your sex life. Some men find that death grip syndrome or similar orgasm-related problems can lead to relationship issues, reduced feelings of intimacy or a preference for masturbation over sex. 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to pin down diagnostic criteria here. 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. 

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Possible Causes of Death Grip Syndrome

Sorry guys, but it’s also hard to give you many details about what techniques or grip styles lead to DGS. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of citations about masturbation-based intimacy issues — at least not when it comes to grip strength.

There are a few points we want to bring to your attention that may add some context, though. First, studies of cyclists have found that the repetitive, continual pressure of cycling is linked to penile numbness and erectile dysfunction, which — although we definitely can’t say for sure — could mean that other types of repetitive pressure are linked to these conditions as well. 

A 2004 review of 62 articles found that while the most commonly reported genital symptom due to cycling was genital numbness, which 50 to 91 percent of cyclists reported, depending on the study. The second most common symptom was erectile dysfunction, reported by 13 to 24 percent of cyclists, possibly as a result of their exercise habits.

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.

But let’s assume for a moment that death grip syndrome is a secondary condition — you’re gripping too hard for a reason.

If we were to assume you are indeed squeezing too hard or masturbating in a way that is substantially more pleasurable or intense than sexual intercourse, you might have begun to do so for a number of reasons. 

  • Medications.Some medications that cause ED, like antidepressants (particularly 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. We’ve got some info on managing antidepressant sexual side effects if you want to know more.

  • Medical conditions. Several medical conditions, such as Peyronie’s disease and thyroid issues, may contribute to sexual dysfunction, while hormonal health issues like low testosterone may also cause a reduced level of interest and certain sexual performance issues. In addition, diabetic neuropathy and other issues that cause nerve damage may reduce nerve function or sensitivity in your penis — a condition called neurological ED.

  • Porn. Although watching porn won’t make your penis less sensitive, there is such a thing as porn-induced ED. 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 2014 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. Some strongly believe porn addiction is damaging, which led to the creation of the NoFap Reddit community.

  • Sexual performance anxiety. Feeling anxious before sex is a common issue, and research shows that sexual performance anxiety causes or contributes to many common forms of sexual dysfunction. Many things can trigger sexual performance anxiety, including concerns about satisfying your partner or making your partner pregnant or because of a previous traumatic sexual experience.   

Sometimes, several of these factors may contribute to difficulties reaching orgasm when you have sex with a partner. 

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How to Treat Death Grip Syndrome

Death grip syndrome has a pretty obvious treatment: a lighter grip and fewer masturbation sessions per day or week. If you’re going too hard or too often, give your penis some time to recover — over time, there’s a chance giving it a rest will bring back some sensitivity.

You can try again later with some new tips in mind to physically and psychologically recondition yourself: 

  • When you do masturbate, ease yourself in slowly. Without a partner there, you may want to sprint for the endzone, but give your penis some time to get warmed up. 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. 

  • Try a lighter masturbation technique.  When you masturbate, use a light grip and stroke your penis gently and slowly instead of firmly and fast. And use a lubricant to reduce friction and increase the comfort of hand-based sexual stimulation – yes it’s messy but so is making an omelet. Stop breaking your penis.

  • Try to limit your porn consumption. While porn isn’t necessarily bad for you, there’s some evidence that porn might have negative effects on your sexual performance. So, it’s possible that giving up porn may help to improve certain forms of sexual dysfunction. 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. 

  • Check for underlying medical issues. A case of temporary ED isn’t a big deal, but if your DGS is because you’re squeezing half-hard handfuls, you should talk to a healthcare provider. They may offer medical advice for treating ED, which could further reduce squeezing problems.

  • Discuss side effects of medications with a healthcare provider. 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.

  • Be open and honest with your partner. If you think DGS is affecting your sex life and your relationship, it can be embarrassing. But perpetuating the cycle of not facing your issue, masturbating because your sex life is bad and then not facing the issue again isn’t going to fix anything. Working with your partner can often make it easier to relax during sex and enjoy yourself. It can also be an excuse to spice things up. For example, you may benefit from taking part in mutual masturbation with your partner before switching over to penetrative sex before you reach orgasm. You may also want to invest in lube or sex toys. Prop comedy is dumb, but prop sex can be really incredible.

  • Get help for anxiety. If this cycle is more than you and your partner can handle, there’s help available. If you need to talk to a professional about problems, sex therapy is always an option.

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Addressing Death Grip Syndrome

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. 

Worried you’re choking off your sex life with your death grip? Here’s what you need to know:

  • 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.

  • DGS reduces penis sensitivity, and is alleged to be one of the potential causes of ED by some guys.

  • Although death grip syndrome isn’t a recognized medical condition among health professionals, the idea that masturbating with an overly tight grip might affect your ability to enjoy sex isn’t totally devoid of merit. 

  • Death grip syndrome can cause intimacy issues and affect more than just your sensitivity — it could lead to injury, anxiety or depression.

  • Changes to your porn and masturbation habits could help you recover, as could communicating with your partner and seeking professional help from a sex therapist.

  • If changing your habits doesn’t seem to work, talk to a healthcare provider. They’ll be able to help through different methods of therapy, medications and other treatment options. 

Have more questions? Want help? Hims’ erectile dysfunction blog is a great place to learn about why liftoff keeps getting scrapped, and what you may be doing or not doing to keep your penis doing what it’s supposed to.

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Don’t put the squeeze on intimacy just because you’re white-knuckling your solo sessions. Avoid DGS, and if you need help, reach out.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment or medication.

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