What Is the Refractory Period?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2014
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Refractory periods are the amount of time that passes between the completion of some type of physical stimulation and when the individual is capable of experiencing another round of the same type of stimulation. Periods of this type are used to identify several different situations, including the male refractory period, and the period in between phases of epilepsy. During these interim periods, the individual is physiologically incapable of responding to further stimulation designed to induce the same type of outcome.

When many people think of refractory periods, the first example that comes to mind has to do with sexual activity in men. After experiencing ejaculation, there is normally a short period of time that must pass before the male is able to experience orgasm a second time. This type of refractory period varies between men, and can be influenced by factors such as age and general physical condition. As is true with many types of sexual function, there is some difference of opinion as to what constitutes a normal male refractory period. However, many health professionals believe that the average male will require anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes after the initial orgasm before it is possible to enjoy a second one.


Another common example of a refractory period has to do with epilepsy. Sometimes referred to as the postictal state, this is the time frame that immediately follows the occurrence of series of seizures. During this period, it is not possible to induce a seizure, and the patient enjoys a season of relatively stable health. A refractory period of this type can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

There are other types of refractory periods associated with general health. Stressed muscle groups often require what is known as a muscle refractory period before they can perform at optimum levels once again. A psychological refractory period refers to interludes after an emotional trauma in which the individual is not capable of responding to additional traumas. In general, the term can be used to refer to any period of time that must pass before it is possible to repeat a given action or function.

It is important to note that refractory periods are not under the conscious control of the individual. In many instances, the duration of a refractory period is determined by the subconscious operation of the body and mind. This mechanism can sometimes be seen as one of the body’s natural defenses, as the short downtime means that it is impossible to physically or emotionally overload the body or mind and thus run the risk of causing long-term damage.


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