Prostate massagers are enjoying a surprising renaissance in the male sex toy market. Touted for their ability to trigger intense or multiple orgasms, their makers are slowly convincing men to buck cultural aversions to butt stuff in the name of pleasure. But this spring, leading prostate massage maker Aneros took a new sales tact. Their massagers, they argued in a press email, are actually medically patented devices with the potential to alleviate back pain, a call of appeal to all achy men — not just hedonists.
Odd as it may seem, the prostate, a walnut-shaped organ between the base of the penis and the anus that secretes a fluid in ejaculate and helps push out ejaculations, can affect men’s backs. When inflamed by a build-up of that fluid, it tweaks its surrounding muscles, causing aches through the groin and at times running upwards, as well as painful urination or ejaculation.
Despite claims on some men’s health sites that sitting too long and other bad modern work life habits cause fluid build-up thanks to poor circulation in many men, the urologists consulted for this piece agreed that inflammation was almost always, if not exclusively, caused by infections, usually triggered by some other illness or direct injury to the prostate. Known as prostatitis, not even every man with this condition, which can be brief or chronic, suffers from back pain.
While many, perhaps even the majority, of men will likely suffer from prostatitis, which can strike at any age, it’s hardly the only cause of lower back pain. Dr. Jesse Mills, an expert on prostate issues, points out that back pain can also be caused by kidney or bladder issues, herniated discs, bone cancer, or just plain muscle spasms, among a host of issues totally unrelated to prostates.
Prostate massage was used as a treatment for prostatitis in the early 20th century, explains Mills. “The idea was that if you went in and mechanically broke up the secretions within the prostate, it would help release some of that pressure,” he says. But doctors also told patients at the time to ejaculate as often as they could to break up backups. When antibiotics with the power to treat the core infection became available, he adds, massage “fell out of favor as a mainline therapy.”
Many prostatitis forums and advice columns still list prostate massage as a treatment. These sites often try to push dubious and extremely suspicious medical prostate massagers or diet plans. But Mills notes that some prostatitis specialists still recommend prostate massage as well — likely for chronic cases or other situations in which the core infection can’t just be medicated away.
Forrest Andrews, product manager at Aneros, says these holdouts birthed the company's first massager. In 1995, a Japanese doctor who still offered in-office massage for prostatitis approached inventor Jiro Takashima about creating an at-home massager so folks wouldn’t have to come to his office regularly, or wind up without treatment if they moved to an area with no pro-massage urologists. After getting a patent in 1998, they started selling their massager (without FDA testing) under the alternative medical product label High Island Health. Only years later, based on user anecdotes about intense orgasms, did he launch Aneros to sell the same device as a sex toy.
Mills acknowledges at-home massage could provide relief for pains beyond those of prostatitis. “By massaging the prostate, potentially you’re relaxing some of [your] pelvic muscles that are in a state of spasm” for any reason, he says, not just those caused by the inflammation of prostatitis. He thinks there should be more study on this possible effect, though, as it’s still speculative.
“If it’s a minimally invasive, non-pharmaceutical therapy,” Mills says, “then it may in fact be a reasonable adjunct to more traditional medical practices” for the well-informed and willing.
But Mills feels Aneros’s press emails vastly overstep this hedged potential. Selling massagers as treatments for general back pain may lead folks to avoid seeking other diagnoses or treatment, possibly exacerbating non-prostatic issues. Nina Šmigmator of LELO, another prostate massager maker, says potential medical benefits motivated LELO's initial development as well. But while the manufacturer acknowledges the prostate massager's potential for alleviating prostatitis effects, LELO uses more circumspect language. “You should be suspicious of any company” making big medical claims, she says.
Until more research can be performed, adds Šmigmator, “it should be enough to say that, if nothing else, prostate massage is safe and incredibly pleasurable."