Blood flow to the penis is extremely important for healthy erections. Here’s what happens to sexual function when blood flow is blocked.
Last Updated: 09/05/2023
Blood clotting, otherwise known as coagulation, is a normal process that your body needs for wound healing. Normal blood clots prevent excessive bleeding after injuries or surgeries by sending blood cells and proteins to the site of injury. During this process, clots are slowly eliminated and allow for normal blood circulation.
However, blood clots can have a dark side. The problem is when clots form inside a blood vessel or artery and are not broken up in a timely manner. This can block the flow of blood to essential organs in the body, including the heart and brain. Blood clots can also reduce blood supply to the penis.
In this blog post, we’ll explain how and why blood clots can lead to erectile dysfunction and how you can improve blood supply to your penis.
Clots can form in a blood vessel (venous clots) or artery (arterial clots). There are three types of harmful blood clots, otherwise known as thrombosis:1
Deep vein thrombosis (venous thromboembolism) – Blood clots in veins, often in the legs.
Pulmonary embolism – A blood clot that travels to the lungs, blocking an artery.
Coronary thrombosis – A blood clot in an artery of the heart, which can lead to heart attacks.
You’re at an increased likelihood for blood clots if you have any of these risk factors:
Sit for extended periods of time
Over age 60
A family history of blood clots
Chronic inflammatory diseases
Peripheral artery disease
Congestive heart failure
Research has found that erectile dysfunction is associated with a risk of developing deep vein thrombosis, even when controlling for traditional cardiovascular risk markers.2
Decreased blood supply to the penis can cause erectile dysfunction. This could be a result of atherosclerosis, also called hardening of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis occurs when arteries clog up and narrow, which leads to decreased blood circulation. Atherosclerosis is caused by high cholesterol and cholesterol deposits on the arteries. It occurs together with a chronic, low-grade inflammatory response that causes blood cells of the immune system to migrate into the atherosclerotic plaque.3
Atherosclerosis can be a cause of erection problems because plaque build up in your arteries means the penis doesn’t get enough blood.
During a healthy erection, blood flows into the corpus cavernosum of the penis. Plaque build up on the corpus cavernosum artery blocks blood flow to the penis, leading to erectile dysfunction.
The connection between atherosclerosis and erectile dysfunction is the reason why scientists believe that ED is a known warning sign for cardiovascular disease, and why problems with erection quality often show up years before coronary disease symptoms.4 (Usually 36 months prior to Heart dz)
Erectile dysfunction is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease overall, as well as coronary heart disease, cardiovascular-related mortality, all-cause mortality, heart attack, and stroke.4
Heart attacks happen when coronary arteries are blocked, depriving the heart of blood. Strokes occur when a clot blocks the flow of blood to the brain.
The thinking is that because the diameter of the cavernosum artery is smaller than that of the coronary arteries, poor blood flow occurs much sooner there than other areas throughout the body, so that ED is often the first symptom of cardiovascular problems.5
According to one group of scientists who wrote a published study on the topic, “Thus, the evaluation and control of atherosclerosis is very important for the prevention and management of both ED and CVD (cardiovascular disease).”6
If you have a blood clot in your body, your doctor will likely prescribe for you a blood thinner medication, which is intended to prevent blood clots or to stop clots from getting bigger. Thrombolytic medications can get rid of existing clots while cholesterol-lowering medications may prevent plaque deposits that get in the way of blood circulation.
Blood pressure medications may also be used to treat high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for clots.
Urologists may recommend a type of therapy called Li-ESWT to support blood flow to the penis. This option is available in a doctor’s office and at home. In this type of therapy, a device sends soundwaves through the penis. Used over time, it can support sexual intercourse.
Lifestyle changes also can reduce the risk of clots, act as natural blood thinners, and improve sexual function. Lifestyle changes double as erectile dysfunction treatments since they are involved in erectile function and sexual arousal. In addition to recommending taking blood thinners, your healthcare provider may also recommend some of the following lifestyle changes:
Smoking causes atherosclerosis and thrombosis blood clotting, among other cardiovascular problems.7 Quitting smoking improves cardiovascular health.7
Smoking and erectile dysfunction also often go hand in hand. Smoking interferes with processes necessary for a strong erection.8 Smoking also exacerbates the association between ED and coronary artery disease and high blood pressure.8 Smoking doubles the likelihood of developing erectile dysfunction.8
Former smokers have the same rate of erectile dysfunction as that of men who never smoked, suggesting that quitting smoking may decrease the risk of erectile dysfunction.9
Obesity is connected to clots and erectile dysfunction, so it’s in your best interest to maintain a healthy weight. Studies show that people who are obese have an elevated expression of molecules linked to thrombosis including plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 and tissue factor, as well as increased blood platelet activation, which is another factor linked to developing a blood clot.10
On the other hand, weight loss triggers improvememts that lead to reduced levels of factors connected to abnormal blood clotting such as plasminogen activator inhibitor-1, tissue factor, and increased blood platelet activation.10
Being overweight or obese also can increase your risk of erectile dysfunction. Obesity around the middle is connected to arteriogenic ED and reduced testosterone, a hormone that plays an important role in sexual function.11
To discover more about obesity and erectile dysfunction, read our guide here.
Avoiding sugar and sugar-sweetened carbs like baked goods can lead to healthy blood vessels and overall heart health.
The Mediterranean diet is a good choice for men concerned about clotting. The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, moderate consumption of fish, olive oil, yogurt and cheese, and red wine while avoiding red and processed meat and sweets.
One study found that this type of diet reduced many of the risk factors for abnormal clotting such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, inflammation, and carotid atherosclerosis.12,13 It also reduced the expression of genes involved in abnormal clotting.12,13
Another study found that following a Mediterranean diet led to a decrease in markers for clotting including fibrinogen, a protein involved in forming clots.14
Research also shows that the Mediterranean diet may improve erectile function in men experiencing ED symptoms.15
Exercise is one of the best natural blood thinners. One of the reasons why exercise benefits cardiovascular health is through its ability to reduce abnormal clotting.16 Exercise reduces levels of the clotting protein called fibrinogen. Many studies have consistently found that physical activity lowers plasma levels of fibrinogen.16
Be certain to talk with your healthcare provider about the right amount of exercise for you. If you haven’t been exercising, start gradually. Conquer small hills before tackling large mountains, otherwise you could do more harm than good to your cardiovascular system.
Getting enough exercise also promotes healthy sexual function. Read our guide to find out how being physically fit can improve your sex life.
A common sleep disorder known as sleep apnea where a person temporarily stops breathing in their sleep may promote deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism in some men.17
In a review of 15 published studies, all studies except one found that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) was an independent risk factor for deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.18 The risk of these clotting disorders was two- to three-times higher in people with OSA.18
Erectile dysfunction also is linked to sleep apnea, so treating this sleep disorder with the help of your healthcare provider can do wonders for both your cardiovascular health and your erectile function.19
You can read more about this connection and what to do about it in our guide to sleep apnea and ED.
In addition, not getting enough sleep for any reason puts you at risk of being too tired to sustain a prolonged erection.
Clots can lead to ED if they block blood flow to the part of the penis known as the corpus cavernosum. When plaque builds up on the corpus cavernosum artery, blood circulation to the penis is blocked, resulting in increased risk for erectile dysfunction.
Experiencing ED also is considered a risk factor for deep vein thrombosis. Researchers believe that because the corpus cavernosum artery is much narrower than arteries throughout the body, clotting problems may show up there first.
Because taking blood thinners improve blood flow throughout the body, they may reduce the risk of ED. For example, in one study, taking 100 mg of aspirin once per day significantly improved erectile function in men who had vasculogenic erectile dysfunction, the most common type of ED. Men with this type of ED have reduced blood circulation to the penis.
In the study, men taking aspirin as a blood thinner had improved scores on the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF-EF) and an improvement in the sexual encounter profile (SEP) compared with placebo-treated men.20
On the other hand, prescribed blood thinners and erectile dysfunction may be connected, but only with certain medications. A study found that a class of blood thinner drugs known as thienopyridine derivatives, especially the drug clopidogrel, led to an increased risk of erectile dysfunction, reduced libido, and interference with sexual function.21
Some studies show that medications to treat erectile dysfunction like Viagra and Cialis can widen blood vessels to increase blood flow and improve the inner lining of blood vessels. Studies also indicate these ED treatment with these drugs may stop blood platelets from sticking together, possibly preventing clots.22 The takeaway? Treating ED may improve blood circulation. If you’re having ED symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider to see if an ED medication is the right choice for you.