Erectile dysfunction or ED (It used to be called impotence) is the inability to achieve or sustain an erection suitable for sexual intercourse. Problems with erections may stem from medications, chronic illnesses, poor blood flow to the penis, drinking too much alcohol, or being too tired. Erectile dysfunction can occur at any age, but it is more common in men older than 75.
The symptoms of erectile dysfunction include difficulty achieving an erection, trouble maintaining an erection, and a reduced interest in sex. Because male sexual arousal is a fairly complex process, it can sometimes be difficult to identify a specific cause. Arousal starts in the brain but it also involves the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels and can be impacted by hormones and emotions. If a problem develops with any of these things, erectile dysfunction could be the consequence.
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Capogrosso, P., Colicchia, M., Ventimiglia, E., Castagna, G., Clementi, M. C., Suardi, N., ... Salonia, A. (2013, July). One patient out of four with newly diagnosed erectile dysfunction is a young man — worrisome picture from the everyday clinical practice. The journal of sexual medicine. 10(7), 1833–1841. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jsm.12179
In patients with low testosterone, testosterone treatment can improve libido and erectile dysfunction, but many men still may need additional oral medications such as sildenafil, vardenafil, or tadalafil. Some studies suggest that men with ED and low testosterone may respond better to PDE5 inhibitors when given testosterone therapy; however, this is controversial.
Other medical therapies under evaluation include ROCK inhibitors and soluble guanyl cyclase activators. Melanocortin receptor agonists are a new set of medications being developed in the field of erectile dysfunction. Their action is on the nervous system rather than the vascular system. PT-141 is a nasal preparation that appears to be effective alone or in combination with PDE5 inhibitors. The main side effects include flushing and nausea. These drugs are currently not approved for commercial use.
Caution is recommended regarding the use of PDE-5 inhibitors and alpha-blockers (for example, Hytrin, Cardura, Uroxatral, Flomax, Rapaflo), medications commonly used to treat benign prostate enlargement (BPH). The combination of these medications can cause lowering of the blood pressure. Stable use of one therapy should occur prior to the addition of the other therapy, which should start at a low dose.
It is normal for a man to have five to six erections during sleep, especially during rapid eye movement (REM). Their absence may indicate a problem with nerve function or blood supply in the penis. There are two methods for measuring changes in penile rigidity and circumference during nocturnal erection: snap gauge and strain gauge. A significant proportion of men who have no sexual dysfunction nonetheless do not have regular nocturnal erections.
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Erections are neurovascular events, meaning that nerves and blood vessels (arteries and veins) are involved in the process of an erection and all must work properly to develop a hard erection that lasts long enough. Erection begins with sexual stimulation. Sexual stimulation can be tactile (for example, by a partner touching the penis or by masturbation) or mental (for example, by having sexual fantasies, viewing porn). Sexual stimulation or sexual arousal causes the nerves going to the penis to release a chemical, nitric oxide. Nitric oxide increases the production of another chemical, cyclic GMP (cGMP), in the muscle of the corpora cavernosa. The cGMP causes the muscles of the corpora cavernosa to relax, and this allows more blood to flow into the penis. The incoming blood fills the corpora cavernosa, making the penis expand.
The development of an erection is a complex event involving integration of psychologic, neurologic, endocrine, vascular, and local anatomic systems. Positron emission tomography scanning studies have suggested that sexual arousal is activated in higher cortical centers that then stimulate the medial preoptic and paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalamus.5 These signals ultimately descend through a complex neural network involving the parasympathetic nervous system and eventually activate parasympathetic nerves in the sacral area (S2 to S4).
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PDE5i use in PD has not been well studied; however its benefits have been shown. Raffaele performed an open label, prospective study evaluating the efficacy of sildenafil 50 mg on demand and depressive symptoms experienced by the PD patient (73). Erections were improved in approximately 85% of men and 75% noted improvements in their depressive symptoms as well. Sildenafil was well tolerated without significant side effects. Zesiewicz et al., performed a shorter study showing improvements in erectile function but no change in depression and parkinsonisms after ED treatment (74).
Erectile problems can happen to men of any age. There are many factors that contribute to ED including poor health, untreated medical problems, medications and pornography use. Many men struggle with understanding when they are experiencing situational sexual dysfunction verses when is your erectile issue an ongoing problem that requires medical help.
In order to establish whether normal erections are occurring overnight (nocturnal erections), the doctor may organise nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) testing. This involves wearing a monitor overnight in your own home. The data from this monitor is then assessed to analyse how often erections occurred, how long they lasted, and how rigid and large the penis was during the erections. If NPT testing is normal, the cause of erectile dysfunction is usually psychological. If not, further testing of the blood flow in the genital area may be required to see if there is blockage or leakage. The doctor may also organise a blood test of levels of hormones such as testosterone, prolactin and thyroid stimulating hormone to see if these are contributing to 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.