What Your Erection Says About Your Health
Guys, your penis may be trying to tell you something. Erections—or more to the point, problems with erections—may signal significant health concerns.
Every man experiences a problem in the sack from time to time. It happens. It could be stress, emotions, fatigue. Nothing to worry about.
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But if you experience an inability to achieve or sustain an erection long enough to have satisfactory intercourse—especially if this problem has lasted for three months or more—you meet the medical definition of erectile dysfunction (ED), a problem that affects 18 million American men.
That’s a sign to pay attention to your health. Sure, you can treat the symptoms with a pill. But your body is speaking. Listen! “People shorten the term ‘erectile dysfunction’ to ‘ED,’ but I like to think of ED as meaning ‘early detection,’ says Tobias Köhler, M.D., MPH, associate professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Male Infertility at Southern Illinois University. “The penis is a very sensitive indicator of overall health.”
Your Penis: Canary in a Coal Mine?
“Coal miners used to bring canaries down into the mine and when the canaries would stop singing they’d know that the oxygen levels were very low and it would be time for them to escape,” says Dr. Köhler. “Essentially, the penis is the canary, and when it stops singing, it’s a warning sign that your overall health is at risk.”
To achieve and maintain an erection, three things have to happen. Once you are aroused, you need:
- a good blood supply into the penis
- intact nerves that can signal to the blood vessels in your penis to dilate
- once engorgement happens, the veins in your penis need to compress to trap the blood in your penis
If these three processes don’t occur, you won’t achieve or sustain an erection. And while factors such as stress or anger or fatigue can interrupt this complex physiological performance from time to time, the chronic problem that characterizes ED often signals a physical health concern. So heed the “danger ahead” signal that your erectile dysfunction is sending and make changes to improve your health; not only are you likely to be happier with your performance in bed, your “ED” won’t stand for “Early Death.”
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Here, four health conditions you may be at risk for if you have ED:
1. Heart disease “The blood vessels that supply the penis are about 2 millimeters in diameter, whereas those that feed the heart are about 4 millimeters in diameter, so erectile dysfunction, especially for younger men in their 40s and 50s is one of the most sensitive early markers of heart disease that we have,” says Dr. Köhler. “It is as powerful a predictor of a heart attack as smoking or family history. For men in their 40s and 50s research shows that erectile dysfunction will pre-date a heart attack typically by three to five years.”
2. Diabetes More than half of men who have diabetes also experience erectile dysfunction, according to research from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Diabetes often leads to a problem called “venous leak,” in which your veins become brittle and don’t compress easily to hold in the blood needed to sustain an erection. “Venous leak is like a bicycle tire with holes in it,” says Dr. Köhler. “You can pump in as much air as you want, but the air will continue to leak out at a continuous rate so the tire isn’t hard, just like the erection won’t be maintained.”
3. Mental health issues Erections are complicated. In order to have an erection, you have to be aroused or stimulated mentally, which sets off a chain of hormonal changes and brain-to-penis signals to get blood flowing. When these changes don’t happen, it could be a sign of depression, anxiety, stress or other mental health issues. “High stress situations, for example, cause you to produce adrenaline which can shunt blood flow away from the penis,” says Dr. Köhler. “Young men who have occasional problems with erections may start to worry about erections and that’s the basis for performance anxiety: Their anxiety causes them to release adrenaline and that adrenaline prevents an erection from occurring.”
4. Nervous System Disorders Because the nervous system is involved in sexual arousal as well as in the ability to achieve and maintain an erection, risk of erectile dysfunction goes up in people who have nerve disorders including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease and peripheral neuropathy.
The sooner you seek help for erectile dysfunction, the more likely you are to be able to improve or even to reverse ED and, if an underlying health condition is identified, to treat that successfully, too.“The longer you go without getting good erections, the more likely you are to get scarring of the penis and then erectile dysfunction can be more difficult to resolve,” says Dr. Köhler. “The penis does have a kind of ‘use it or lose it’ side to it. Many men who have erectile dysfunction suffer in silence and that’s a big mistake because ED can affect your quality of life, from your self-confidence, to your willingness to enter into intimate relationships.”
There are many good treatments available for erectile dysfunction ranging from lifestyle changes (stopping smoking, losing weight, exercising, stress reduction), to oral and injectable medications, to penile pumps and implants to surgery to repair blood vessels to the penis. “If you can climb a flight of stairs, a urologist can help you achieve erections and resume a normal sex life,” says Dr. Köhler.
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