What can erectile dysfunction (ED) tell you about your heart?

Penile artery size:

Did you know that the one of the smallest arteries in the body is the artery of the penis? It is approximately 1-2 mm in diameter. Therefore, if you have a condition that causes blockages in the arteries in the body, one of the first arteries to be affected is the penile artery. When not enough blood gets into the penis, erectile dysfunction (ED) can result.

Typical conditions which cause narrowing or blockages of the blood vessels are:

  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure

ED and heart disease

Several studies have shown that ED and heart disease are linked. Most importantly, ED may be the first clinical marker of diseased arteries in the body and may manifest long before any other symptoms of heart disease (like chest pain or shortness of breath) occur.

The reason for this is because arteries of the heart are about 3-4 mm in diameter or about double the size of the arteries of the penis. Therefore, although both the arteries of the penis and the heart may undergo narrowing at the same time, as the arteries of the penis are much smaller, they are more susceptible to blockage.

Why does this matter?

Although ED can affect your quality of life, it can’t kill you like heart disease can. If you do have ED secondary to arterial disease, you may also have the early stages of arterial disease of the heart – even if you have no symptoms.

How do I know if I my erectile dysfunction is caused by arterial disease?

As ED can be caused by many conditions, working out if it is caused by an arterial problem needs careful evaluation. This involves a comprehensive assessment including a detailed history, examination and targeted investigations.

What is the best test for assessing the arteries of the penis?

Probably the best screening test for assessing the penile arteries is by a special type of ultrasound test. This is called a Duplex Doppler Ultrasound which not only assesses the arteries of the penis but also how well the veins are working. As this test needs specialised training, very few places offer this service. At Men’s Health Melbourne, A/Prof Katz performs these tests and the results are available immediately.

For more information on this test, please click here.