Varicocele is the swelling of the blood vessels that carry blood from the testicles to the heart (veins) due to the pooling of blood in the vein as a result of the malfunction of the valves in the veins that helps to keep the movement of blood in one direction. It is similar to the varicose veins which are swollen and twisted veins that usually occur in the legs. Varicocele can cause a variety of symptoms such as testicular shrinkage, pain, swelling, or discomfort. However, we are here to discuss: “can a varicocele cause erectile dysfunction?”.
But First, we must learn some important things about varicocele such as its causes, symptoms, and who is more likely to suffer from it?
Who is more likely to suffer from a varicocele?
About 15-20% of men worldwide are known to have varicocele. 1
It is more common during puberty in males because of the increased blood circulation to testicles. Older men are also prone to varicocele due to poor blood circulation and malfunction of the blood vessels.
What are the causes of varicocele?
The testicles are held by a network of blood vessels and nerves. The blood vessels deliver blood to the testicles (arteries) and also carry it back to the heart (veins).
The valves in the veins stop the blood from flowing back to the testicles. However, sometimes the valves malfunction and blood flows in the wrong direction which causes enlargement of the veins.
The size of the left spermatic cord is larger than the right spermatic cord due to which varicocele mostly occurs on the left testicle.
A study showed that the majority of infertile men who have varicocele are regular smokers. This shows that tobacco smoking may become a reason for varicocele as it can affect venous health (relating to veins). 4
Symptoms of varicocele:
Normally, a varicocele may not show any symptoms and you would not even notice it until you go to a doctor. However, sometimes varicocele can grow in size and show the following symptoms:
- A painless lump on the testicle that feels like a “bag of worms”
- A feeling of heaviness and sharp pain that gets better on lying on your back
- Decreased sperm production or infertility
How can I check if I have varicocele?
Self-examination is a good and safe way to check whether or not you have a problem with your testicles. So, you can follow these techniques for self-examination:
- Stand in front of a mirror and look for any swelling over the testicles.
- Roll your fingers gently over the testicles to see if there is any lump or swelling.
Can a varicocele cause erectile dysfunction?
Yes, a varicocele may cause erectile dysfunction. This fact has been proved by multiple studies over the years.
The testicles contain sperm tubules that are responsible for sperm production. Testicles are also known to produce testosterone hormone which is responsible for sexual arousal in males. Sexual arousal gives rise to erection in men and lower sexual desire can ultimately result in erectile dysfunction.
A Varicocele may damage testicles by disrupting the blood supply provided to them, as a result, testicles start to shrink and they are unable to produce sufficient testosterone and sperm.
A study of 141 infertile men found that varicocele can cause hypogonadism: the decreased function of the testes, and lower testosterone levels in the body. 5
Another study in Taiwan involved 32,856 men suffering from ED. The study showed that after undergoing surgery and treatment for varicocele, the patients had improved erections and total testosterone levels in the body which proves the point that varicocele was causing the ED and low testosterone. 6
You can have a varicocele and not notice due to a lack of symptoms or small size of the varicocele. However, a varicocele can sometimes increase in size over time and symptoms will start to occur too. Therefore, it is better to self examine your testicles over time to see if everything is normal down there or not. A varicocele can have a variety of negative effects such as erectile dysfunction, infertility, low testosterone, and many other symptoms but treating the varicocele through surgery or embolization can also treat the symptoms most of the times.