Can Painkillers Cause Erectile Dysfunction?

Dr. Ximena Sanchez-Samper

Ximena Sanchez-Samper, MD is a Board- Certified Addiction Psychiatrist who obtained her degree as a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and completed her Addictions Fellowship through the combined Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital / Brigham and Women’s Hospital Addictions Fellowship program in 2004.

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Do Painkillers Cause Erectile Dysfunction?

If you are regularly using painkillers, there is a chance that you could end up dealing with erectile dysfunction (ED). Though many people hesitate to discuss this issue, the reality is that it’s extremely common. Learning about the link between ED and painkillers can help you find ways to improve your mental and physical health. 

Understanding Painkillers and ED

Before getting further into the subject, it’s useful to take a quick look at some helpful definitions.

What Is Erectile Dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction occurs whenever someone cannot get a firm erection at all or cannot keep the erection long enough to complete penetrative sexual. 

Of course, many men have times when they fail to get an erection or need a little extra time to get an erection. It only becomes a medical condition when it’s persistent. According to the Mayo Clinic, ED reportedly affects more than half of men aged 40 to 70. Although a man of any age can experience ED, the risk of developing the condition increases with age. If you find yourself having difficulty with erections on a regular basis, you might have ED. Other symptoms of ED can include a decreased desire for sex, a lack of erections when you wake up in the morning and trouble ejaculating. 

What Are Painkillers?

It’s important to keep in mind that painkillers are an incredibly broad range of drugs that stop pain. They range from common, over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen to extremely strong and potentially deadly medications like fentanyl. Most painkillers fall into two classes: opioids and non-opioids.

A non-opioid is any drug that reduces pain without affecting the brain’s opioid system. These painkillers include acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen. They are often available as over-the-counter medications, and they usually are not addictive.

Opioids are highly addictive drugs that affect the opioid receptors inside the brain. Often called prescription painkillers, this is the class of drug most people refer to when they discuss the connection between ED and painkillers. Opioids come in many forms, including: 

  • oxycodone
  • hydrocodone
  • morphine
  • heroin
  • fentanyl
  • codeine
  • methadone

Is There a Connection Between ED and Painkillers?

Do painkillers actually cause ED? The answer to this question is complicated and depends on what type of painkiller you are using. Several studies have carefully investigated the link between painkiller usage and ED.

ED and Opioids

Research has found that opioid use makes ED much more likely. A three-year study published in 2017 that followed men with chronic pain who regularly used opioids found that almost one-third of them developed ED

In fact, research indicates that ED is one of the most common negative symptoms that painkiller users report. Not only do many find it difficult to maintain an erection while under the influence, but they also find that they experience ED even when sober. Unfortunately, for some men, opioid-related ED becomes a chronic issue.

ED and Other Painkillers

Some people think that non-opioid painkillers also cause ED. However, research shows this is unlikely. A 2015 study that examined over 4,700 men found that those who took NSAID painkillers had the same risk of ED as men who were not using any painkillers. 

The reason that some men notice ED after taking non-opioid painkillers is simply because of their underlying health conditions. Many conditions that cause pain also cause ED. For example, a man who is taking ibuprofen for his arthritis might have ED, but it is the arthritis that caused the ED. Typically, non-opioid painkillers are safe to take without increasing your underlying risk of developing ED.

How to Tell if You Have Painkiller-Induced ED

Typically, people who are taking painkillers are dealing with a lot of different challenges. Some may have chronic pain and health problems, and others may have mental health issues, such as substance use disorders. In these sorts of situations, it can be challenging to tell whether painkiller usage and the ED are linked. 

Medical research shows that ED from painkillers typically occurs after regular usage of the painkiller. If you take a painkiller one time and then have ED for weeks afterward, you might want to look for another culprit. The ED might not be linked to the painkillers if it already existed before you took them, but many painkillers can worsen existing ED symptoms.

The main sign of painkiller-induced ED is ED that occurs after repeated painkiller use. If you have no erectile difficulties, start regularly taking painkillers, then find yourself struggling to get or maintain an erection, the painkiller might be at fault. In these cases, you might also find that the ED goes away if you quit using the painkillers for a while but comes back once you take the drugs again.

Why Do Painkillers Cause ED?

As you can see, there is a definite connection between painkillers and ED. Especially with opioids, men find that they develop ED after chronic use. Why does this happen? It turns out that multiple factors contribute to the issue. 

Hormonal Changes

The main reason that painkiller usage causes ED is because it impacts reproductive hormones. Your body’s hormonal system is responsible for managing erections. Unfortunately, if you take excessive amounts of opioids, your hormonal system can become imbalanced. 

Regular opioid usage directly affects the glands that create testosterone and other sex hormones. When someone takes opioids, it blocks the glands that usually release instructions to create testosterone. At the same time, opioids also encourage the body to produce more prolactin, which further inhibits testosterone production. The end result is a condition called hypogonadism. 

When a man is dealing with hypogonadism, their entire reproductive system struggles to function correctly. Your body fails to stimulate the nerves you need to achieve an erection, and ED becomes more and more common. In addition to issues with maintaining an erection, low testosterone levels can cause other problems, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Reduced energy
  • Infertility
  • Reduced hair growth
  • Growth of breast tissue
  • Loss of muscle mass

Organ Damage

In rare cases, ED can be a sign of an even bigger health problem. Excessive use of certain opioids can damage the kidneys and liver. If this happens, a man can also experience ED. Men dealing with liver or kidney disease can end up with narrowed blood vessels and imbalanced hormones. This interferes with the reproductive system and ends up causing ED. 

Kidney damage and liver damage due to over-the-counter or opioid painkillers is very dangerous. Alongside ED, people with organ damage may also experience:

  • Fluid retention
  • Unexplained muscle movements
  • Dark urine
  • Inability to urinate
  • Yellow skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained itching

Cardiovascular Issues

ED is closely related to the health of a person’s circulatory system. Blood flowing through several small vessels in the penis is what causes it to stiffen, so if the cardiovascular system isn’t functioning properly, it might not be possible to maintain an erection. 

Unfortunately, there are several types of cardiovascular problems associated with chronic opioid use. It can cause arrhythmias, irregular heart rates and issues with blood pressure. If a person’s vascular system encounters enough damage, they may end up experiencing ED. For example, an arrhythmia can impact blood flow, especially during physical activity, and this drop in blood flow may prevent a full erection. 

Psychological Health Problems

ED is not entirely a physical condition. There are several psychological issues that can affect the ability to maintain an erection. Being stressed, anxious or worried can all impact erection quality. 

Though painkiller usage doesn’t directly cause psychological health problems, regular misuse typically does. Dealing with an opioid addiction is stressful and challenging. Not only do you have to deal with constant cravings and withdrawal, but the drugs can change the chemistry of your brain and make you more prone to depression and anxiety. These unfortunate side effects of painkiller misuse can all make it more difficult to maintain an erection. 

Treatment Options for People Dealing With Painkiller-Induced ED

If you are suffering from ED due to painkiller usage, you have a few different options. Depending on the types of painkillers you take and the reason you take them, you may want to consider one or more of these treatment options.

Hormone Therapy

If you have ED due to hormonal changes caused by opioids, a common treatment option is hormone therapy. Cases of ED among chronic opioid users can often be treated by regularly using a testosterone gel. This helps to supplement the lost hormones and help men regain their ability to have an erection. However, hormone therapy can come with some other side effects, and it will not address the underlying cause of ED. 

Substance Use Disorder Treatment

If you are not taking painkillers for another medical condition, the most effective treatment will simply be to discontinue use. However, opioids are highly addictive, so not taking them can be quite challenging. Most people with opioid use disorders will need professional medical treatment. At a substance use treatment center like Charles River Recovery, you can get help moving toward sobriety. Opioid treatment can involve multiple types of care, including:

  • Medical supervision to keep you safe and comfortable while detoxing
  • Methadone or another type of slow-acting opioid to help manage cravings
  • Group therapy to give you encouragement from others in similar positions
  • Individual therapy to unpack the triggers that cause your opioid addiction
  • Therapy sessions to provide healthier ways to manage cravings

Other Medical Options

Painkiller-induced ED is complex, so it’s worthwhile to talk to a doctor if you are dealing with this problem. In some cases, people may have liver, kidney or cardiovascular damage that they need to treat. Improving your overall health and managing underlying conditions can make it much easier to maintain an erection. Your doctor may also be able to help you find non-opioid painkillers that manage chronic pain without causing ED as a side effect.

Overcome Painkiller Addiction at Charles River Recovery

If you or a loved one is dealing with opioid addiction, you don’t have to put up with problematic side effects like ED. Charles River Recovery in Massachusetts is here to help you with drug or alcohol use disorders. Our team of licensed experts can help craft a personalized treatment plan that addresses your unique challenges. We’ll give you the tools to overcome addiction and provide support during this challenging time. To learn more about our different treatment programs, contact the Charles River Recovery team today.