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Q and A

18 February 2007
Blue Balls
by Paul Aitken

A few years back when I was working on a TV show, a colleague met a woman who told him this story: She had met a guy in a bar (or maybe it was a date it doesn't matter). One thing led to another and they ended up necking on the couch in her apartment. After a period of time she decided that she didn't want to take this any further and he agreed. But before he left he asked "Do you mind if I...? She wasn't sure what he meant but nodded her assent nevertheless. The man promptly pulled down his pants and proceeded to masturbate, ultimately ejaculating onto her coffee table. He then zipped up, thanked her and kissed her goodnight.

We of course thought this delightfully funny and over the next few days we'd occasionally wander into one another's office, stand at the other's desk and say tentatively "Do you mind if I...?" Much mirth would then ensue. A few weeks later I heard the story from an unrelated source and wondered if I may have been witness to the birth of an urban legend. Then again, that was the last I heard of it, so maybe not.

But I always thought that we may have been unduly judgmental. Admittedly, jacking off all over a woman's TV guide might not be the way Miss Manners would suggest ending a romantic evening, but I think the guy had to make a choice; a) Leave politely and suffer a dull aching pain for the entire subway ride home, or b) Leave satisfied and pain-free with the possibility of being immortalized as the guy who said "Do you mind if I..."

Chances are, if you're a guy over the age of sixteen, you've had some experience with what this guy was trying to avoid. For a while, when I was a young man, there was a theory amongst young feminists that "blue balls" were a fiction invented by horny guys, part of a gender-wide conspiracy to guilt girls into sleeping with them. And I have no doubt that there were a lot of guys writhing in exaggerated agony to achieve just this end. But as anyone who has had first-hand knowledge knows, blue balls are the real-deal and they really do hurt, although the pain is not generally unbearable.

Blue balls derive their name not from the sorrow their condition inspires, but from the color of your testicles. That's right, depending on the severity of the condition your balls really can take on a bluish tinge, although technically it's not your testicles themselves but the skin of the scrotum that turns blue.

What causes this condition is vasocongestion, which is another way of saying more blood is going into an area than is coming out. During an extended period of foreplay the brain sends out signals along the parasympathetic nerve system to the neurovascular bundles leading into the genital area. These signals cause a chemical chain reaction that ultimately causes the smooth muscles of the artery walls to relax, allowing blood to flood in. At the same time the veins become constricted, leading to a net increase in blood pressure. This is not a bad thing. Vasocongestion is essential for penile tumescence and ultimately that raging hard-on you know and love.

But the arteries leading to the penis are not the only ones affected by this chain reaction. All tissues in the genital region are involved and become engorged with blood. It's been estimated that during the process of vasocongestion, the testicles increase 25-50 percent in size. I've never noticed this myself but hey, who am I to argue.

Under normal circumstances, vasocongestion is followed fairly closely by orgasm (30 seconds if you're an adolescent, 30 minutes if you're a stud like me). When this happens, the sympathetic nerve system kicks in and another chain reaction occurs that is the opposite of the first. The artery walls close, the veins open and within seconds blood flow returns to normal. It was at this point that our friend zipped up, thanked his hostess and left.

But if orgasm doesn't occur, no signals are sent through the nerve system. The arteries don't close, the veins don't open and blood flow remains restricted. After a while, the stagnant blood becomes de-oxygenated and as you might remember from your grade 6 science class, blood lacking in oxygen becomes darker. Seen from outside the skin it appears blue - hence blue veins and in this case, blue balls.

But why does this cause your balls to hurt? Well, there are a couple of theories. The first is that the heightened blood pressure will itself cause pain. The testicles are highly innervated and deeply sensitive to pain, so it doesn't take too much to push them over the edge. Another theory is that as the blood becomes de-oxygenated, the affected tissues become ischemic. And as anyone who has ever suffered from angina knows, tissues lacking an adequate supply of oxygen can hurt - sometimes a lot. A third theory postulates that the pain of blue balls is caused by prostatic congestion the prostrate anticipates orgasm and secretes a whole lot of prostatic fluid that's ultimately got no place to go. But while prostatic congestion may contribute to the generalized discomfort of the genital region, it's unlikely to make the dangly bits themselves feel tender.

Whatever the cause, blue balls do hurt. It's not a "knee to the groin" kind of hurt, but it can be enough to ruin an otherwise pleasant evening. The good news is that blue balls don't last long, usually from thirty minutes to an hour. Eventually, the sympathetic nervous system gets the message that there will be no nookie tonight and sends the appropriate signals to resume normal function. Blood gets flowing and the pain dissipates.

But what if a guy doesn't feel like going through an hour of testicular discomfort? It does seem like a lot to ask just because he got to cop a feel under the sweater. Admittedly, jacking off all over a woman's lemon-polished teak without specific permission seems a tad boorish, but is there no middle ground? Several websites suggest taking a cold shower and apparently this does work but who the hell wants to take a cold shower? If you're going to go to all that trouble why not just turn up the hot water and whack off?

Another quick fix, according to an article in the journal Pediatrics (of all places), involves straining to lift a heavy object. Apparently, this creates something akin to the Valsalva maneuver, causing the blood vessels to constrict in response to the increased pressure, and in effect, resetting the vascular balance.

I've got an easier solution. When it's clear that you're all revved up with no place to go, simply stand up and say; "Do you mind if I use your washroom?" Then go there, get off, clean up, and you're good to go. Just make sure you're zipped up when you leave. Who knows, next time you might even make it to home base.

As a side note, Blue Ball is also the name of a town in Pennsylvania. It's right in the heart of Amish country, about 15 km as the crows flies from Intercourse, Pennsylvania (I kid you not). According to the map, if you're heading to Intercourse and you take a wrong turn, you'll end up in Blue Ball. Most of us don't need a map to tell us that, least of all those poor Amish lads.

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