Since sexual arousal is a complex process involving hormones, emotions, nerves, muscles, blood vessels and the brain, a malfunction in any of these can lead to ED. Stress, exhaustion and psychological issues can also contribute, and anxiety over maintaining an erection can actually make it harder to attain. In short, any condition that inhibits blood flow to the penis can lead to ED.
The severity of ED has been correlated with the extent of CVD. Banks et al reported that the risk of future CV events increased progressively according to ED severity.28 This was shown in both men with and without known CVD at baseline and after controlling for confounders. Solomon and colleagues found an inverse correlation between international index of erectile function (IIEF) scores and plaque burden seen on coronary angiography.29 In addition, Yaman et al demonstrated a significant correlation between ED severity on IIEF questionnaires and coronary artery calcification.30
Neurogenic ED remains difficult to diagnose and treat effectively. It is important to realize that many men with neurologic disorders may have ED related to disease related factors separate from the insult to the neuro-erectile pathway. These disease related factors must be addressed prior or simultaneously with pharmacologic and/or surgical therapy to effectively treat their SD. As awareness of the complexities of normal sexual function increase so will the recognition of SD in this population. This movement will lead to improved quality of life in men with neurologic disorders, as proven by the strong link between sexual function and quality of life.
The availability of phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE5) inhibitors—sildenafil, vardenafil, tadalafil, and avanafil—has fundamentally altered the medical management of ED. In addition, direct-to-consumer marketing of these agents over the last 15 years has increased the general public’s awareness of ED as a medical condition with underlying causes and effective treatments.
Prevention of some of the causes that contribute to the development of erectile dysfunction can decrease the chances of developing the problem. For example, if a person decreases their chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, they will decrease their chances of developing erectile dysfunction. Other things like stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet (heart healthy with adequate vitamin intake), and exercising daily may reduce a person's risk.
When you become aroused, your brain sends chemical messages to the blood vessels in the penis, causing them to dilate or open, allowing blood to flow into the penis. As the pressure builds, the blood becomes trapped in the corpora cavernosa, keeping the penis erect. If blood flow to the penis is insufficient or if it fails to stay inside the penis, it can lead to erectile dysfunction.
Nerves originating in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia innervate the penis. There are autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic), and somatic separate and integrated pathways. The autonomic pathways neurons originate in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively. They merge to form the cavernous nerves that travel alongside the prostate, enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to affect the neurovascular events required for tumescence and detumescence. The somatic nerves send sensory information from the penile skin, glans, and urethra via the dorsal penile nerve and pudendal nerve to the spinal cord. The somatic nerves also initiate contraction of the ischio- and bulbocavernosus muscles.
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Sildenafil (Viagra) was the first oral phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor approved by the FDA in the United States for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (it is not approved for women). Sildenafil inhibits PDE5, which is an enzyme that destroys cGMP. By inhibiting the destruction of cGMP by PDE5, sildenafil allows cGMP to accumulate. The cGMP in turn prolongs relaxation of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. Relaxation of the corpora cavernosa smooth muscle allows blood to flow into the penis resulting in increased engorgement of the penis. In short, sildenafil increases blood flow into the penis and decreases blood flow out of the penis.
The most common inflatable prosthesis is the three-piece penile prosthesis. It is composed of paired cylinders, which doctors surgically insert inside the penis. Patients can expand the cylinders using pressurized fluid (see figure 3). Tubes connect the cylinders to a fluid reservoir and pump, which doctors also surgically implant. The reservoir is usually in the pelvis. A doctor places the pump in the scrotum. By pressing on the pump, sterile fluid transfers from the reservoir into the cylinders in the penis. An erection is produced primarily by expansion of the width of the penis, however, one model can increase in length a small amount also. Lock-out valves in the tubing prevent the fluid from leaving the cylinder until a release valve is pressed. By pressing the relief valve and gently squeezing the penis, the fluid within the cylinders transfers back into the reservoir.
You’ve probably heard of Viagra, but it’s not the only pill for ED. This class of drugs also includes Cialis, Levitra, Staxyn, and Stendra. All work by improving blood flow to the penis during arousal. They're generally taken 30-60 minutes before sexual activity and should not be used more than once a day. Cialis can be taken up to 36 hours before sexual activity and also comes in a lower, daily dose. Staxyn dissolves in the mouth. All require an OK from your doctor first for safety.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Implantation of penile prosthesis remains an important option for men with ED if medical treatment fails or is inappropriate. Prostheses are available as a saline-filled silicone device or a malleable device. The benefit of the former is a more natural appearance in the deflated state, closely approximating the appearance of a flaccid penis. The trade-off is a higher mechanical failure rate and higher cost. Satisfaction rates for patients who underwent penile prosthesis surgery have been reported to be near 90%.36 However, in the majority of patients who receive this treatment, less invasive alternatives have failed and therefore satisfaction with this treatment would be expected to be higher in this subset of patients. Risks of these devices include surgical and anesthetic risk, device infection, and device malfunction. Mechanical failure rates depend on the specific device being investigated. Overall, the percentage of devices that are free from mechanical failure at 5 years ranges from 84% to 94%.19 Infection rates in the era of coated devices and improved techniques are reported to be less than 1%.37
The American Urological Association Guideline on the Management of ED states oral PDE5i are considered first line therapy for the treatment of ED, unless contraindicated (57). Sildenafil, the first oral PDE5i, was introduced in 1998 and has revolutionized ED therapy due to its broad applicability, effectiveness and safety profile. PDE5i work by preventing hydrolysis of cGMP by the PDE5 enzyme in the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. cGMP degradation typically leads to smooth muscle contraction and detumescence prevented by PDE5i administration. Two other PDE5i, vardenafil and tadalafil are other PDE5i with different pharmacokinetics, PDE receptor selectivity and side effect profiles.
If PDE5 drugs don't work or cannot be used because of potential side effects, your doctor can recommend other therapies. The drug alprostadil (Caverject, Edex, Muse) allows blood to flow more freely in the penis, leading to an erection. The drug can be injected with a tiny needle into your penis. Or, a small pellet (suppository) can be inserted into the opening of the penis. Suppositories and injections are effective in the majority of men.
Other hormone levels: Measurement of other hormones beside testosterone (luteinizing hormone [LH], prolactin level, and cortisol level) may provide clues to other underlying causes of testosterone deficiency and erectile problems, such as pituitary disease or adrenal gland abnormalities. Doctors may check thyroid levels in some individuals as both hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid function) can contribute to erectile dysfunction.
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Performance anxiety can be another cause of impotence. If a person wasn’t able to achieve an erection in the past, he may fear he won’t be able to achieve an erection in the future. A person may also find he can’t achieve an erection with a certain partner. Someone with ED related to performance anxiety may be able to have full erections when masturbating or when sleeping, yet he isn’t able to maintain an erection during intercourse.
Sexual dysfunction and ED become more common as men age. The percentage of complete ED increases from 5% to 15% as age increases from 40 to 70 years. But this does not mean growing older is the end of your sex life. ED can be treated at any age. Also, ED may be more common in Hispanic men and in those with a history of diabetes, obesity, smoking, and hypertension. Research shows that African-American men sought medical care for ED twice the rate of other racial groups.