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Increase in Erectile Dysfunction Linked to Use of Prescription Painkillers

May 16, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

Prescription painkillers, also known as opioids, were linked with a higher risk of erectile dysfunction (ED) in a recent study published in the journal Spine.

“Men who take opioid pain medications for an extended period of time have the highest risk of ED,” lead author Dr. Richard A. Deyo said in a press release.

In all, the researchers examined the health records of more than 11,000 men with back pain in order to determine those who were taking prescription painkillers as well as prescriptions for testosterone replacement or ED medications.

The scientists found that, in total, 19 percent of men who took high-dose opioids for at least four months received ED prescriptions versus only seven percent of those who did not take painkillers. Those who took low-dose opioids (under 120 mg) landed predictably in the middle at 12 percent.

Despite this increase, Deyo warns that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

“This doesn’t mean that these medications cause ED, but the association is something patients and clinicians should be aware of when deciding if opioids should be used to treat back pain,” he said.

Depression and other health conditions besides back pain and the use of sedative hypnotics like benzodiazepines also increased a man’s chances while the biggest predictor of all was age with men 60 to 69 as much as 14 times more likely to be taking ED medication.

Use of prescription pain medicine is on the rise in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Mortality and Morbidity Report: in all, sales of the drugs quadrupled between 1999 and 2010.

With this increase has come an upsurge of issues besides erectile dysfunction.

In 2008, drug overdoses in the United States caused 36,450 deaths. Of that number, 14,800 were due to opioid pain relievers. Furthermore, in 2009, the CDC reports, 1.2 million emergency department visits were related to the misuse of prescription drugs, of which pain relievers were prominent - a 98 percent increase since 2004.

Ultimately, the CDC estimates that nonmedical use of painkillers costs insurance companies as much as $72.5 billion annually in health-care costs.

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