With coronary artery disease, a buildup of plaque inside the arteries can limit the amount of blood that’s able to flow through them. If the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle is reduced or blocked by this hardening of the arteries, the result can be angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.17 Because the arteries that supply blood to the penis are much smaller than the ones that feed the heart, the problem may show up earlier as having difficulty getting an erection.18
Monitoring erections that occur during sleep (nocturnal penile tumescence) can help you and your doctor to understand if the erectile dysfunction is due to psychological or physical causes. The nocturnal penile tumescence test is a study to evaluate erections at night. Normally men have three to five erections per eight hours of sleep. The test can be performed at home or in a sleep lab. The most accurate way to perform the test involves a special device that is connected to two rings. The rings are placed around the penis, one at the tip of the penis and the other at the bottom (base) of the penis. The device records how many erections occur, how long they last, and how rigid they are. The test is limited in that it does not assess the ability to penetrate.
While these are the two most comparable datasets on this subject, there’s a problem with both of these studies, which is that they don’t tell us anything about the severity of the difficulties experienced. Having erectile “difficulty” doesn’t necessarily mean that these guys can’t get an erection at all or that they have problems every time and with every partner. Also, we don’t know whether guys who had very mild problems answered these questions consistently (e.g., if it only happened once or you didn’t think it was a big deal, would you still report it as a problem?).
Many younger men are concerned that this will create a dependency on the medication. However, you cannot become dependent because there is no tachyphylaxis to these medications. This means, that unlike some other drugs (opiates, benzodiazepines) your body does not get used to these medications over time, so you won’t need to up the dosage over time to get the same effect. In fact, we have found the opposite to be true. Over time, many of our younger patients need less medication and need it less frequently.
And be aware that the vast majority of physical or psychological causes of erectile dysfunction are temporary. They may go away as quickly as they occurred. But if anything is bothering you or your partner, you should seek out confidential, professional advice. There is no point in worrying and not doing anything about it. It may just make the situation worse.
In some cases, however, these drugs may be unsuitable for patients with heart disease. If you are considering one of these drugs and you have heart disease, as many diabetics do, be sure to tell your doctor. In rare cases, the pills may create “priapism,” a prolonged and painful erection lasting six hours or more (although reversible with prompt medical attention).