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Long-Term Use of Prescription Painkillers May Double Risk of Erectile Dysfunction

Update Date: May 15, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

Long-term use of prescription painkillers has become a serious problem in the United States, as an estimated 4.3 million adults in this country use these medications on a regular basis. While undoubtedly many people require the use of pain management at some time or another, use of these medications, called opioids, can lead to a number of health problems, like addiction, sleep apnea and fatal overdoses. Now, a recent study conducted by researchers at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research has found that taking prescription painkillers for a long period of time can also lead to an elevated risk of erectile dysfunction.

The study was conducted by looking at the health records for 11,000 men who suffered from back pain. From there, researchers split up the men into four categories. Men were either classified as "none" if they had not receive a prescription for painkillers, "acute" if they took the painkillers for three months or fewer, "episodic" if they took painkillers for between three and four months and had fewer than 10 refills, and "long-term" if they took painkillers for greater than four months or for greater than three months with 10 or greater refills. Researchers also checked whether the men received prescriptions for erectile dysfunction before seeing a doctor about back pain. Then researchers looked at a link between prescription painkiller use and prescriptions for erectile dysfunction.

Ultimately, erectile dysfunction was most common in men who were older; men between the ages of 60 and 69 were 14 times more likely to receive prescriptions for erectile dysfunction. Depression, other health conditions beyond back pain and the use of sedative hypnotics like benzodiazepines also elevated the risk of needing a prescription for erectile dysfunction. However, if researchers controlled for all of those factors, receiving a prescription for painkillers elevated the risk of receiving a prescription for erectile dysfunction by 50 percent. In total, 19 percent of men who received high-dose prescription painkillers would later go on to receive treatment for erectile dysfunction. Comparatively, 12 percent of men who received low-dose prescription painkillers would report the same, while only 7 percent of men who did not take prescription painkillers had the same experience.

Researchers do not know why this link may exist. "This [study] 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," Dr. Richard A. Deyo said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Spine.

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