Side Effect of opioids and painkillers – low testosterone levels

Ross Hauser, MD

Many men may find themselves in a situation where they are on prolonged opioid use to manage their chronic pain. They are being pain managed until they can decide on surgery or choose to remain on painkillers to get them through their day or their job or their activities. A growing concern is what are these opioids doing to these men’s testosterone levels? The concern is well-founded.

I need to work, I need to play, I need to be active

As you are reading this article, the need to work, play, and be active are likely the main reasons why you are looking up chronic pain and your concerns about testosterone levels and that you are becoming or are “Low-T.”

In our patient population, we see many men who tell us that they use painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications following any activity that is considered physically demanding or requires more than the usual physical exertions. Depending on their level of exertion, they may double up on normal doses to get them through whatever it is that they are doing. The men we see at our center have come to an understanding that if they continue on painkillers they will ultimately need a joint replacement. Some have even come to the realization that if they continue on painkillers, they will have the well-known and documented symptoms and conditions related to low testosterone levels.

Research has shown that Testosterone has a direct effect on cartilage growth. If the testosterone levels are low, so is the body’s ability to regrow damaged cartilage.

Testosterone is an anabolic hormone. An anabolic hormone is a “builder upper,” its characteristics are well known as a hormone that promotes repair and growth of soft tissue, including muscle and cartilage growth.

Many people believe that testosterone is only a male hormone, research over the years shows testosterone also plays a pivotal role in female body chemistry. Male or female, if one has a low testosterone level, then he/she will likely experience more difficulty healing.

Opioids impact serum testosterone levels

A study published in October 2020 from the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology (1) describes the problems of painkillers and low testosterone levels

“it is crucial to focus on the adverse effects of narcotics, and one of the lesser-known side effects is hypogonadism (low testosterone). Opioids act on the hypothalamus, pituitary, and directly on the gonads affecting serum testosterone levels. Narcotic-induced androgen insufficiency contributes to sexual dysfunction, infertility, hyperalgesia, and involving various body functions overall, affecting the quality of life.”

In 2014, a paper with the long descriptive title: “Long-term testosterone treatment in elderly men with hypogonadism and erectile dysfunction reduces obesity parameters and improves metabolic syndrome and health-related quality of life”, was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. (2)

It is a long title because the paper has a lot to say:

These findings were also demonstrated in a 2018 paper from Rutgers University Medical School published in the journal Sexual Medicine Reviews. (3)

In this paper, the researchers noted the non-coincidental rise of incidence of opioid-induced androgen (testosterone) deficiency (OPIAD) and the “epidemic” of prescription painkiller usage. To combat testosterone deficiency and the health impacts it creates the researchers suggested men:

Further: “the patient and physician should weigh the risks and benefits of testosterone replacement therapy against more conservative approaches. Options such as clomiphene (an infertility drug for women often prescribed to men in an “off-label” or not-originally intended use) and anastrozole (a drug used to decrease estrogen in women with breast cancer) are available for patients (men) who wish to preserve fertility.” In other words, if you are a younger man and more children are in your future, you may be recommended to this class of drugs to maintain fertility.

In the conclusion to this research the Rutgers’s doctors said: “Because opioid-induced androgen (testosterone) deficiency (OPIAD) is an underappreciated and underdiagnosed consequence of chronic opioid abuse, healthcare providers should be particularly vigilant for signs of hypogonadism in this patient population. It is reasonable for pain specialists, urologists, and primary care physicians to closely monitor patients on prescription opioids and discuss available options for treatment of hypogonadism.”

Low testosterone is present among approximately 63% of male patients on chronic opioids

In the above study, researchers recommended to doctors that they closely monitor patients on prescription opioids for low testosterone-related problems. An April 2020 study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (4) makes these very real observations after monitoring the patients in their study many men have low testosterone following continuous use of painkillers.

Research: Painkillers cause erectile dysfunction – 53.3% to 81.7%  of patients who were opioid-dependent (addicted) had problems with sexual dysfunction.

Men do not like to go to the doctor, this is well documented. Men will finally go to the doctor when erectile dysfunction is involved. This was documented by researchers at Brown University who wrote in the Asian Journal of Andrology (5):

“Erectile dysfunction is estimated to affect more than 30% of men between the ages of 40 and 70. As a result of an improved understanding of the disorder and improved treatment options, an increasing number of men are going to the doctor with Erectile dysfunction concerns. In fact, many of these men are visiting their health care professional for the first time with ED as their primary complaint.”

But what is causing their erectile dysfunction? While there are many causes of erectile dysfunction, this article will concentrate on the relationship between low testosterone, joint pain, and opioid or painkiller use.

A recent study from Tegore Medical College in India (6) begins with this statement: “The relationship between opioid use and sexual problems among males is a complex one, as some are using opioids to increase their sexual performance while others are suffering from sexual problems due to its use.” 

The big problem is this research from Tegore Medical College is suggesting that 53.3% to 81.7%  of patients who were opioid-dependent (addicted) had problems with sexual dysfunction.

Physicians might not believe patients who claim that a standard opioid dosage is an ineffective treatment

In 2015, noted researcher and physician Forest Tennant, MD, wrote in the journal Pain Medicine (7) about hormone abnormalities in patients with severe and chronic pain who fail standard pain management treatments. Here are the learning points.

To help show doctors that these patients may not be responding to typical doses of painkillers because their hormone levels were so low, Dr. Tennant suggested that these patients be characterized by their hormonal problems and then, based on this information, doctors could develop treatment strategies for them.

Dr. Tennant suggested hormone serum abnormalities are biomarkers of severe, uncontrolled pain, and, in a patient who has failed standard treatment, they are an indicator that enhanced analgesia (the patient may need more painkillers) is required and that hormone replacement may be indicated.

More painkillers are given as a suggestion in some patients. That you are reading this article is likely an indication that you want to solve your problem of needing more painkillers. Let’s continue on.

But what about my daily aspirin and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories?

To be fair, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin and the NSAIDs and aspirin effect on erectile dysfunction.

In July 2018, Urologists published research in the journal Medicine (8) which outlined these controversies:

Comment: On the surface, it would appear that NSAIDs would help ED as an anti-inflammatory and aspirin would help ED as it may help clear clogged arteries. So why the controversy? Because many researchers think the opposite. This is the concluding statement from this research:

Aspirin and NSAIDs while shown to cause erectile dysfunction – may help others with their ED. The evidence according to this research team is inconclusive.

No erectile dysfunction in aging and older rats on aspirin

A May 2019 paper in the journal Science Reports (9) examined the effects of long-term aspirin administration on erectile function in old and aging rats. Here are the summary learning points:

Ibuprofen

A 2018 study (10)  from a team of European researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America reported: “ibuprofen use results in selective transcriptional repression (destructive interference) of endocrine cells (which produce sperm/fertility and testosterone) in the human testis. This repression results in the elevation of the stimulatory pituitary hormones (which can suppress the production of testosterone), resulting in a state of compensated hypogonadism (“Low-T”).”

Taking prescription painkillers is clearly associated with a higher risk of needing medications for erectile dysfunction or testosterone replacement.

A study in the medical journal Spine (11) examined over 11,0000 men with back pain who were taking painkillers. What they found was that medication prescriptions for erectile dysfunction or testosterone replacement were significantly associated with both the dose (the number of painkillers you took) and duration (how long men were on painkillers) of opioid therapy. The more you took, the longer you took it, the greater the chance you would be given erectile dysfunction medications.

Painkillers are causing Erectile Dysfunction. Now men are taking medicine for their pain and asking for prescriptions for their erectile dysfunction

Listen to what researchers in the Journal of Sex Medicine (12) had to say. “Long-term opioid therapy has been found to have a strong impact on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis that can be manifested clinically by sexual dysfunction. This event is rarely reported and thus unnoticed and undertreated.”

The management of male patients with pain should include a review of their sexual health history

A second study, published in February 2017 (13) by the same team of researchers, this time appearing in the journal Clinical Medicine, made these findings:

The use of testosterone gel should be discussed with your health care provider.

Testosterone does repair joint damage.

The answer is not a balance of painkillers and erectile dysfunction medications: the answer is to fix the joint and get rid of the painkillers and the need for erectile dysfunction medications

The summary of research and concerns about low testosterone in men who routinely take painkillers can be seen in October 2018 research published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. (17)

“Opioid-induced androgen deficiency is a common adverse effect of opioid treatment and contributes to sexual dysfunction, impairs pain relief, and reduces the overall quality of life. The evaluation of serum testosterone levels should be considered in male chronic opioid users and the decision to initiate testosterone treatment should be based on the clinical profile of individuals, in consultation with the patient.”

The answer is not a balance of painkillers and erectile dysfunction medications: the answer is to fix the joint and get rid of the painkillers and the need for Viagra.

Strengthen and stabilizing joints with Prolotherapy injections

Throughout this article, we offered research to suggest that prolonged use of painkillers can cause erectile dysfunction and other symptoms common of low testosterone, including loss of muscle, energy, libido, weight gain, etc. At our center, we treat the cause of the pain and try to eliminate the need for painkillers. Prolotherapy is an in-office injection treatment that research and medical studies have shown to be an effective, trustworthy, reliable alternative to surgical and non-effective conservative care treatments. In our opinion, based on extensive research and clinical results, Prolotherapy can superior to many other treatments in relieving the problems of chronic joint and spine pain and, most importantly, in getting people back to a happy and active lifestyle.

As briefly demonstrated in this graphic. Prolotherapy injections share many of the healing characteristics of testosterone. We mention that both Prolotherapy and testosterone help fibroblasts (a connective tissue cell that produces collagen and other fibers to proliferate and subsequently produce strong ligament strength.

As briefly demonstrated in this graphic. Prolotherapy injections share many of the healing characteristics of testosterone. We mention that both Prolotherapy and testosterone help fibroblasts (a connective tissue cell which produces collagen and other fibers to proliferate and subsequently produce strong ligament strength. 

As briefly demonstrated in this graphic. Prolotherapy injections share many of the healing characteristics of testosterone. We mention that both Prolotherapy and testosterone help fibroblasts (a connective tissue cell that produces collagen and other fibers to proliferate and subsequently produce strong ligament strength.)

Do you have a question about this article? You can get help and information from our Caring Medical Staff

1 Marudhai S, Patel M, Subas SV, Ghani MR, Busa V, Dardeir A, Cancarevic I. Long-term Opioids Linked to Hypogonadism and the Role of Testosterone Supplementation Therapy. Cureus. 2020 Oct;12(10). [Google Scholar]
2
Yassin DJ, Doros G, Hammerer PG, Yassin AA. Long‐term testosterone treatment in elderly men with hypogonadism and erectile dysfunction reduces obesity parameters and improves metabolic syndrome and health‐related quality of life. The journal of sexual medicine. 2014 Jun;11(6):1567-76. [Google Scholar]
3 Hsieh A, DiGiorgio L, Fakunle M, Sadeghi-Nejad H. Management strategies in opioid abuse and sexual dysfunction: a review of opioid-induced androgen deficiency. Sexual medicine reviews. 2018 Oct 1;6(4):618-23.  [Google Scholar]
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5 Miner M, Kim ED. Cardiovascular disease and male sexual dysfunction. Asian Journal of Andrology. 2015 Jan;17(1):3. [Google Scholar]
6 Aggarwal N, Kherada S, Gocher S, Sohu M. A study of assessment of sexual dysfunction in male subjects with opioid dependence. Asian journal of psychiatry. 2016 Oct;23:17. [Google Scholar]
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8 Li T, Wu C, Fu F, Xiong W, Qin F, Yuan J. Long-term aspirin administration has no effect on erectile function: Evidence from adult rats and aging rat model. Scientific reports. 2019 May 28;9(1):1-8. [Google Scholar]
9 Li T, Wu C, Fu F, Qin F, Wei Q, Yuan J. Association between use of aspirin or non-aspirin non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and erectile dysfunction: A systematic review. Medicine. 2018 Jul;97(28). [Google Scholar]
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11 Deyo RA, Smith DH, Johnson ES, Tillotson CJ, Donovan M, Yang X, Petrik A, Morasco BJ, Dobscha SK. Prescription opioids for back pain and use of medications for erectile dysfunction. Spine. 2013 May 15;38(11):909. [Google Scholar]
12 Ajo R, Segura A, Inda MM, Planelles B, Martínez L, Ferrández G, Sánchez A, Margarit C, Peiró AM. Opioids increase sexual dysfunction in patients with non-cancer pain. The journal of sexual medicine. 2016 Sep 1;13(9):1377-86. [Google Scholar]
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14 Hanna F, Ebeling PR, Wang Y, O’Sullivan R, Davis S, Wluka AE, Cicuttini FM. Factors influencing longitudinal change in knee cartilage volume measured from magnetic resonance imaging in healthy men. Ann Rheum Dis. 2005 Jul;64(7):1038-42. [Google Scholar]
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17 Coluzzi F, Billeci D, Maggi M, Corona G. Testosterone deficiency in non-cancer opioid-treated patients. J Endocrinol Invest. 2018;41(12):1377-1388. [Google Scholar]

This article was updated July 2, 2021

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