The most common treatment for erectile dysfunction is drugs known as phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5) inhibitors. These include tadalafil (Cialis), vardenafil (Levitra), and sildenafil citrate (Viagra). These are effective for about 75% of men with erectile dysfunction. They are tablets that are taken around an hour before sex, and last between 4 and 36 hours. Sexual stimulation is required before an erection will occur. The PDE-5 inhibitors cause dilation of blood vessels in the penis to allow erection to occur, and help it to stay rigid. Men using nitrate medication (e.g. GTN spray or sublingual tablets for angina) should not use PDE-5 inhibitors.
Pay attention to your vascular health. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides can all damage arteries in the heart (causing heart attack), in the brain (causing stroke), and leading to the penis (causing ED). An expanding waistline also contributes. Check with your doctor to find out whether your vascular system — and thus your heart, brain, and penis — is in good shape or needs a tune-up through lifestyle changes and, if necessary, medications.
Nerve or spinal cord damage: Damage to the spinal cord and nerves in the pelvis can cause erectile dysfunction. Nerve damage can be due to disease, trauma, or surgical procedures. Examples include injury to the spinal cord from automobile accidents, injury to the pelvic nerves from prostate surgery for cancer (prostatectomy), and some surgeries for colorectal cancer, radiation to the prostate, surgery for benign prostatic enlargement, multiple sclerosis (a neurological disease with the potential to cause widespread damage to nerves), and long-term diabetes mellitus.
It is important to understand that ED is frequently, if not usually, directly related to endothelial dysfunction, and that the release of NO by the vasculature of the penile arteries is directly related to the function of intact, healthy endothelium. In the face of endothelial dysfunction, the process of erection fails to occur in a normal fashion.16
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Getting your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in an optimal range will help protect your heart and blood vessels. Cholesterol management may include lifestyle interventions (diet and exercise) as well as medications to get your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in an optimal range.
Talk with your doctor before trying supplements for ED. They can contain 10 or more ingredients and may complicate other health conditions. Asian ginseng and ginkgo biloba (seen here) are popular, but there isn't a lot of good research on their effectiveness. Some men find that taking a DHEA supplement improves their ability to have an erection. Unfortunately, the long-term safety of DHEA supplements is unknown. Most doctors do not recommend using it.
Injection therapy involves injecting a substance into the penis to enhance blood flow and cause an erection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug called alprostadil (Caverject) for this purpose in July of 1995. Alprostadil relaxes smooth muscle tissue to enhance blood flow into the penis. It must be injected shortly before intercourse. Another, similar drug that is sometimes used is papaverine—not yet been approved by the FDA for this use. Either drug may sometimes cause painful erections or priapism (uncomfortable, prolonged erections) that must be treated with a shot of epinephrine.
Patients at high cardiovascular risk should not be treated for ED until their cardiac condition is stabilize. These conditions include unstable or refractory angina, myocardial infarction or cerebrovascular accident within the past 2 weeks, uncontrolled hypertension, New York Heart Association (NYHA) Functional Classification III-IV congestive heart failure, high-risk arrhythmias, hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathies, and moderate-to-severe valvular disease.25 This class of drugs is also contraindicated in patients who use nitroglycerin or nitrate-containing compounds.26, 27
Approximately 95% of penile implant surgeries are successful in producing erections that enable men to have sexual intercourse. Moreover, patient satisfaction questionnaires show that up to 90% of men who have undergone penile implants say they would choose the surgery again, and overall satisfaction ratings are higher than those reported by men using oral medication or penile injection therapy.
Side effects include lightheadedness, fainting, priapism, urethral bleeding (intraurethral), dyspareunia in the partner (intraurethral), hematoma (intracavernosal) or penile curvature secondary to scar (intracavernosal). Efficacy of intraurethral alprostadil has been demonstrated to be around 50% ("able to have intercourse") in randomized controlled trials.31,32 For intracorporeal injection, typically alprostadil is tried alone, or compounded with papaverine (nonspecific phosphodiesterase inhibitor that increases intracellular cyclic adenosine monophosphate and cGMP) and/or phentolamine (competitive, non-selective alpha1- and alpha2-adrenoreceptor blocker). Pinsky et al33 reported an extensive review of the benefits and drawbacks of the combinations of these drugs.
Is your erectile dysfunction due to psychological (stress, relationship problems, etc.) or physical factors? Your doctor may ask if you note erections at night or in the early morning. Men have involuntary erections in the early morning and during REM sleep (a stage in the sleep cycle with rapid eye movements). Men with psychogenic erectile dysfunction (erectile dysfunction due to psychological factors such as stress and anxiety rather than physical factors) usually maintain these involuntary erections. Men with physical causes of erectile dysfunction (for example, atherosclerosis, smoking, and diabetes) usually do not have these involuntary erections. Men with psychogenic erectile dysfunction may relate the onset of problems to a "stressor," such as failed relationship. Your doctor may suggest a test to determine if you have erections during sleep, which may suggest that there may be a psychological cause of the erectile dysfunction.
Having erection trouble from time to time isn't necessarily a cause for concern. If erectile dysfunction is an ongoing issue, however, it can cause stress, affect your self-confidence and contribute to relationship problems. Problems getting or keeping an erection can also be a sign of an underlying health condition that needs treatment and a risk factor for heart disease.