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Erectile dysfunction is particularly common among men over the age of 50 but guys of all ages can be susceptible to the condition. There are well-known triggers of erectile dysfunction, some of which are psychological and others may be due to medical complications. Indeed, stress, relationship problems and high blood pressure can all lead to erectile dysfunction. However, the latest research has shed light on how painkillers can play a role in the disorder.

Scientists from the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research carried out studies across 11,327 men in Oregon and Washington. All the participants had visited their doctors with back pain complaints during the year 2005, with the researchers examining their pharmacy records for the six months before and after the back pain visit. They wanted to uncover whether the men had taken opioids, or painkillers, for their symptoms. They also checked to see if they were on treatments for erectile dysfunction.

The study, published in the journal Spine, categorised the men into four groups - those who never took opioids, those who them for three months or less, for between three and four months and those who used them long-term. A dose the equivalent of more than 120mg of morphine was categorised as high-dose use. The most commonly used prescription opioids were hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine.

According to the findings, more than 19 per cent of men who took high-dose opioids for at least four months also received treatments for erectile dysfunction or testosterone replacement. More than 12 per cent of those who took low-dose opioids for at least four months also took erectile dysfunction medication or testosterone replacement. Conversely, less than seven per cent of men who did not take opioids were on either erectile dysfunction treatments or testosterone replacement.

Age was also a factor that played a role in erectile dysfunction, with men aged 60 to 69 as much as 14 times more likely to be on erectile dysfunction treatments than those aged 18 to 29. Even after the researchers adjusted for other health conditions and the use of sedatives, long-term use of opioids was linked to a 50 per cent greater chance of the use of treatments for erectile dysfunction, suggesting that long-term intake of painkillers is associated with the disorder.

Study lead author Dr Richard Deyo, professor of evidence-based family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, commented on the results. "Men who take opioid pain medications for an extended period of time have the highest risk of ED," he said. "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."

While this research sheds light on the development of erectile dysfunction in certain cases, it is worth bearing in mind it can be brought on by narrowing of the blood vessels to the penis. This is commonly associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. As such, men suffering with erectile dysfunction for more than a few weeks should see their GP for tests to determine if a more serious health condition is at play.