Impotence more common in men who pop painkillers

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Aging men tend to take more painkillers and experience more sexual problems, but does that mean one causes the other?

According to a new study that took a stab at the question, the link between impotence and pain meds remained even after ruling out age and several other diseases as possible explanations.

Researchers found that regular users of drugs like aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and Celebrex were 38 percent more likely to have erectile dysfunction than men who didn’t take the so-called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers.

Acetaminophen is sold as Tylenol in the U.S., and ibuprofen often as Advil.

Such drugs are thought to block the hormones that govern men’s erections, which might help explain the new findings, said study author Dr. Joseph Gleason, a urologist with Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles. The new report appears in the Journal of Urology.

Still, Gleason said his results don’t prove popping painkillers causes impotence. It’s possible that unknown factors may be at play, or that he and his colleagues didn’t succeed in weeding out the influence of other diseases entirely.

For instance, many men take a low dose of aspirin because they’re at higher risk for heart attack, which in turn means their blood vessels aren’t in top shape. And that can affect the penis as well.

“We call the penis a thermometer for vascular disease,” or problems related to the blood vessels, said Dr. Brant Inman, a urologist at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, who didn’t work on the new study

Arteries in the penis are smaller than those that go to the heart, he added, and therefore may get blocked up to several years earlier. Narrow arteries obstruct the blood that normally makes the penis swell and become hard.

According to the National Institutes of Health, about one in 100 men in their 40s have erectile dysfunction, compared with almost half of men older than 75.

For the current study, Gleason and his colleagues analyzed health questionnaires from nearly 81,000 men aged 45 to 69.

Overall, just shy of half said they took painkillers regularly (at least five times a week) and less than a third reported moderate or severe erectile dysfunction.

Of those who took painkillers regularly, 64 percent said they could never get an erection compared to 36 percent of men who didn’t take the drugs often.

After accounting for factors like age, weight, high blood pressure and heart disease, the researchers still found a 38-percent higher risk of erectile dysfunction among men on painkillers.

Still, because the study didn’t test painkillers directly, Inman cautioned that men shouldn’t stop using painkillers for fear that it would cut their chances of getting an erection.

One of the authors of the new report is affiliated with Merck, which makes the erectile dysfunction drug Staxyn, and another with GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Levitra.

SOURCE: The Journal of Urology, online February 22, 2011.