"Erectile dysfunction"
Erectile dysfunction may be an early warning sign of heart problems. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

No doubt you’ve heard those old tales about canaries and coal mines.

If the canary goes belly-up in his cage, the miner can assume the poor bird was done in by gulps of toxic fumes that rolled in from some dark, terrestrial crevice.

A dead bird says something is amiss.

To draw a parallel: The flaccidity of a man’s beleaguered organ is roughly equivalent to that lifeless canary—it’s telling you something very important.

It’s telling you trouble is afoot.

It may sound crass, yes, but it’s the unvarnished truth: Erectile dysfunction is the canary in your khakis.

“The same thing that causes blockages to the arteries of your heart causes blockages to the arteries of your penis,” said Harland Holman, MD, of the Spectrum Health Family Medicine Residency Center. “It can cause trouble with erections.”

So let’s be clear: Long before your heart says anything, your troubled member may be telling you about cardiovascular problems.

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Rx only

Researchers have long known that illicit drugs such as heroin can cause erectile dysfunction, but men should also stay away from medications that are not prescribed by a doctor.

If someone says they can sell you leftover Viagra or some knockoff substance, don’t buy it. Also, don’t fall for gimmicky supplements.

“First off, those aren’t really monitored,” Dr. Holman said. “So who knows what’s really in them. You never know what you are going to get … and without knowing, you could have some major reactions.”

A study published last year in the Canadian Urological Association Journal found that an early, proper diagnosis of the underlying cause of erectile dysfunction can save a patient’s life.

“The smaller vessels of the penis may be affected by plaque burden much earlier than the larger coronary, internal carotid, and femoral arteries,” the study stated. “Men may (display) symptoms of erectile dysfunction long before signs of cardiovascular disease manifest.”

It’s not just a matter of sexual functionality. Sure, the functional aspect is important. But it shouldn’t be the only focus of your worries.

Depending on your age, your family history and your risk factors, you should first undergo a cardiovascular assessment, Dr. Holman said.

“It can save your life by finding out about the underlying heart problems,” he said.

An estimated 30 million men suffer from erectile dysfunction in the U.S., and their odds of experiencing this ailment increase exponentially with age.

A man should not assume a prescription for a little blue pill or some offshoot wonder drug is the remedy. Medication is a useful tool that can work immediately, but there still may be longer-term health implications if you’re battling erectile dysfunction.

“As far as treatment is concerned, the first thing is to not jump to the pill,” Dr. Holman said. “A lifestyle change should be first and foremost.”

Dr. Holman offers some concepts to consider if you’re experiencing erectile dysfunction:

  • Be open to discussion. As soon as the condition presents itself, you need to figure out what your risk factors are. And you should be open to discuss the problem. “Patients need to bring it up—they should feel comfortable talking about it,” Dr. Holman said.
  • Change your lifestyle. By first addressing the risk factors associated with erectile dysfunction, it’s likely you’ll also address cardiovascular problems. “It’s pretty clear there’s a strong relationship between erectile dysfunction and all the other risk factors that are at play—smoking, blood pressure, obesity,” Dr. Holman said. “The best first step is making lifestyle changes. It can be just as effective as medication, and a lot cheaper. It’ll help your overall health, too, more so than taking a pill.” Stop smoking, start exercising and improve your diet.
  • Know your disposition. Not surprisingly, desire can play a significant role in a man’s ability to obtain, and maintain, an erection. If there is stress or tension in a relationship with your significant other, it’s a no-brainer—it will affect sexual chemistry. “You have to enjoy each other’s presence,” Dr. Holman said. “It’s hard to separate the psychological and physical. You should at least see what is going on in your relationship before jumping to the pill.”
  • Get a checkup. In years past, the association between erectile dysfunction and the cardiovascular system was not something the medical world took into account, Dr. Holman said. But that’s changing quickly. “At a bare minimum, everyone should at least get an EKG,” he said. “And based on those results, you may need a stress test.”
  • Weigh your options. Medications such as Viagra and Cialis are viable solutions in many cases, Dr. Holman said, as they can restore a man’s confidence and effectively address the matter of erectile dysfunction. But there can be downsides: Viagra, for instance, has been associated with an increased risk of melanoma. It’s important to have a candid discussion with your doctor about your condition and your options.

For more information on erectile dysfunction and additional common men’s health issues, watch the video below.