Erectile dysfunction may be the result of arterial and non-arteritic causes. Hardening of the arteries that bring blood into the penis, atherosclerosis, is a common cause of erectile dysfunction, particularly in men with cardiovascular disease. However, problems with the nerves that supply the penis as well as the veins that drain blood out of the penis can also cause troubles with erection. Erectile dysfunction may also have a psychological cause.
Move a muscle, but we're not talking about your biceps. A strong pelvic floor enhances rigidity during erections and helps keep blood from leaving the penis by pressing on a key vein. In a British trial, three months of twice-daily sets of Kegel exercises (which strengthen these muscles), combined with biofeedback and advice on lifestyle changes — quitting smoking, losing weight, limiting alcohol — worked far better than just advice on lifestyle changes.
Induction of erection occurs after stimulation of the cavernous and pelvic nerve plexus. Conversely, stimulation of the sympathetic trunk leads to detumescence. The reflex erectile response requires that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. Tactile and sensory signals are received by the somatic sensory pathways and integrate with parasympathetic nuclei within the sacral spinal cord (S2-4) leading to induction of erection via cholinergic signaling. These reflexogenic erections remain intact with upper motor neuron injuries. Psychogenic erections do not require that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. In a cat models, spinal cord removal below L4/L5 led to absence of a reflexogenic erection but stimulation of the medial preoptic area (MPOA) or placement near a female cat in heat led to erection (5,6). Psychogenic erections occur via induction of central pathways traveling from the brain through the sympathetic chain. Non-penile sensory pathways induced by sight, sound, touch and smell travel through the MPOA to the erection centers within the cord T11-L2, and S2-S4 to induce erections (7). When a sacral lower motor neuron injury is present in men, below T12 these types of erections are more likely to occur (8). Spinal cord lesions above T9 are not associated with psychogenic erections (9). Rigidity of erections is less with psychogenic erections because the thoracolumbar sympathetic outflow may contain a decreased concentration of neurons compared to the parasympathetic outflow from the sacral spinal cord.
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An analysis of 14 studies involving more than 90,000 patients with ED confirmed the relation between ED and an increased risk of cardiovascular events and mortality.  Compared with patients without ED, those with ED had a 44% increased risk of cardiovascular events, a 25% increased risk of all-cause mortality, a 62% increased risk of MI, and a 39% increased risk of cerebrovascular events. Treatment of ED, either through lifestyle interventions or by pharmacologic means, may improve prognosis and reduce risk.
Parasympathetic pathways originate from the intermediolateral cell columns of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sacral spinal cord segments. Preganglionic fibers pass through the pelvic plexus where they coalesce with sympathetic fibers from the superior hypogastric plexus. The cavernous nerves that innervate the penis arise from the portion of the pelvic plexus. The pelvic plexus also contains nerves that innervate the rectum, bladder and urinary sphincter and the nerve projections can be damaged during radical excision of the bladder, prostate and rectum, leading to iatrogenic ED (4).
"Erectile dysfunction can be a very serious issue because it's a marker of underlying cardiovascular disease, and it often occurs before heart conditions become apparent. Therefore, men should consider improving their weight and overall nutrition, exercise more, drink less alcohol and have a better night's sleep, as well as address risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
In some cases, nocturnal penile tumescence testing is performed to find out whether the man has erections while asleep. Healthy men usually have about four or five erections throughout the night. The man applies a device to the penis called a Rigiscan before going to bed at night, and the device can determine whether he has had erections. (If a man is able to have normal erections at night, this suggests a psychological cause for his impotence.)
A physical cause can be identified in about 80% of cases. These include cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, neurological problems such as following prostatectomy, hypogonadism, and drug side effects. Psychological impotence is where erection or penetration fails due to thoughts or feelings; this is somewhat less frequent, in the order of about 10% of cases. In psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment.
The next new treatments for erectile dysfunction will probably be improvements in some ED drugs already being used. "A dissolvable form of Levitra that you put under your tongue is coming that may work more quickly than the pills we have now," says Feloney. A new form of alprostadil may make it possible for you to rub it directly on the penis instead of inserting or injecting it. And newer phosphodiesterase inhibitors that last even longer and cause fewer side effects are being developed. Stay tuned!
I think that a very powerful argument to young men who want to perform at the highest level is to point out the destructive nature of what they’re doing. If they’re having 18 drinks per week, if they’re having three, four, five drinks at any one time, they’re going to guarantee that their erections are not going to be at the highest level. I can’t tell you the number of men who come in saying, they went out, they had a date, they had a big dinner– which, by the way, is also not a great thing for erections, because all the blood is now going to your gut instead of to the genital area. And how important lifestyle changes are to improving your performance, as well, if not better, than the medications. So make certain that you exercise modestly, not excessively. Make certain that you have a smaller meal on an evening or a day that you want to have a sexual encounter, because you want the blood to go, once again, to the penile area and not to your gut. And really, the whole idea of stress– if you’re stressed out, if you’re worried about a lot of things, if you’re distracted, you can’t initiate that psychic stimulus to your spinal cord and then ultimately to your penis. So stress management is incredibly important.
Medical conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease (CVD), and psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety, also contribute to sexual dysfunction in middle-aged or elderly men. CVD and hypertension cause a narrowing and hardening of the arteries, leading to reduced blood flow to the corporal bodies, which is essential for achieving an erection. Diabetes is a common aetiology of sexual dysfunction, because it can affect both the blood vessels and the nerves that supply the penis. Men with diabetes are four times more likely to experience ED, and on average, experience ED 15 years earlier than men without diabetes.7 Obesity is also correlated to the development of several types of dysfunction, including a decrease in sex drive and an increase in episodes of ED.8
Vacuum devices for ED, also called pumps, offer an alternative to medication. The penis is placed inside a cylinder. A pump draws air out of the cylinder, creating a partial vacuum around the penis. This causes it to fill with blood, leading to an erection. An elastic band worn around the base of the penis maintains the erection during intercourse.
If you bike a lot and have a very narrow saddle on your bicycle, consider switching to a "no-nose seat" which is wider at the back than a conventional saddle, allowing more of your weight to be distributed to the sitting bones. Make sure the seat is level or angled slightly downward and at a height that allows your knee to be just slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal cycle. Raising the handlebars on your bike so that you're sitting upright may also help.
Diabetes is a well-recognized risk factor for ED. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that the prevalence of ED was 37.5% in type 1 diabetes, 66.3% in type 2 diabetes, and 52.5% in diabetes overall—a rate approximately 3.5 times higher than that in controls.  The etiology of ED in diabetic men probably involves both vascular and neurogenic mechanisms. Evidence indicates that establishing good glycemic control can minimize this risk.
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Penile injection therapy, intracavernous injection, involves the injection of a vasodilator (a chemical that relaxes arteries to increase blood flow) into the penis. Penile injected therapy is recognized as the most effective nonsurgical treatment for erectile dysfunction. However, due to the invasive nature, it is often used in men who have failed or have contraindications to other treatments such as oral therapies.
Low-intensity extracorporeal shock wave therapy has been proposed as a new non-invasive treatment for erectile dysfunction caused by problems with blood vessels. Shock wave therapy machines are now available in some medical practices in Australia. Although there is some evidence that it may help a proportion of men with erectile dysfunction, more research is needed before clear recommendations on its use can be made.
For obvious reasons, ED can be a sensitive subject, one that until relatively recently men were more likely to try to hide than to deal with. Fortunately, a deeper understanding of the variety of causes of erectile dysfunction has led to medications, therapies, and other treatments that can be more individualized and more likely to be effective—and more open discussion about addressing the concern.
In this study, ED proceeded CVD in almost 70% of cases. Similarly, many men with ED have been found to have pre-existing CVD. A study by Vlachopoulos et al evaluated the incidence of asymptomatic CVD in 50 men with ED.22 These authors found that 19% of men with ED had asymptomatic CVD. Similarly, Mulhall and colleagues found that 20% of men presenting with ED and vascular insufficiency on penile duplex had asymptomatic CVD.23
Aging: There are two reasons why older men are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction than younger men. First, older men are more likely to develop diseases (such as heart attacks, angina, cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure) that are associated with erectile dysfunction. Second, the aging process alone can cause erectile dysfunction in some men by causing changes in the muscle and tissue within the penis.
Using a tiny needle and syringe, the man injects a small amount of medicine into the side of his penis. The medicine relaxes the blood vessels, allowing blood to flow into the penis. This treatment has been widely used and accepted since the early 1980s. The three most common medicines are prostaglandin E1 (alprostadil), papaverine (Papacon®), and phentolamine (Regitine®).
Psychological factors — Psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, guilt or fear can sometimes cause sexual problems. At one time, these factors were thought to be the major cause of impotence. Doctors now know that physical factors cause impotence in most men with the problem. However, embarrassment or "performance anxiety" can make a physical problem worse.
The prostaglandin E1 is contained in a small suppository located at the tip of an applicator. You should urinate first as this lubricates the urethra and makes it easier to insert the applicator into the tip of the urethra (urethral meatus, the opening at the tip of the penis that urine passes through). A patient can release the suppository into urethra by gently wiggling the applicator and pressing the button at the end. Rubbing the penis allows the suppository to dissolve, and the prostaglandin is absorbed through the tissue of the urethra into the penis. It takes 15 to 30 minutes for this occur. Once into the penis, the prostaglandin causes increased blood flow into the penis. The prostaglandin can be present in the ejaculate, and thus doctors recommend that men use a condom when having intercourse with a pregnant partner. Men may need to use a condom if vaginal irritation occurs in female partner.
Aging, liver and kidney problems, and concurrent use of certain medications (such as erythromycin [an antibiotic] and protease inhibitors for HIV) slows the metabolism (breakdown) of sildenafil. Slowed breakdown allows sildenafil to accumulate in the body and potentially may increase the risk of side effects. Therefore, in men over 65 years of age, in men with significant kidney and liver disease, and in men who also are taking medications called protease inhibitors, the doctor will initiate sildenafil at a lower dose (25 mg) to avoid accumulation of sildenafil in the body. A protease inhibitor ritonavir (Norvir) is especially potent in increasing the accumulation of sildenafil, thus men who are taking Norvir should not take sildenafil doses higher than 25 mg and at a frequency of no greater than once in 48 hours. Other medications that may affect the level of sildenafil include erythromycin and ketoconazole.
In 1983, Brindley injected the corpora of several SCI men with phentolamine (85). Two out of the three men had a sufficient erection produced. Since then multiple reports on the efficacy of intracavernosal therapy have been published using, phentolamine, papaverine, prostaglandin, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), and these medications in combination (86-90). These medications have been found to be extremely effective for neurogenic ED due to their ability act locally and essentially bypassing neuronal pathways. Local therapies are usually considered second-line after PDE5i fail to elicit a desired response which can occur in about 25–30% of men with ED, in general (91). Furthermore, the locally delivered medications can be quite dangerous if not used appropriately as priapism and significant pain with injections can occur. These specific occurrences have been suggested as a reason for high discontinuation rates with intracavernosal therapy (92).
With sex therapy, your counselor looks at the sexual problems you and your partner are having. Sex therapy works with problems such as performance anxiety, which means that you worry so much about whether you will be able to have sex that you are not able to. It also helps when you have erection problems that are not due to physical or drug problems, or premature ejaculation (you come too quickly). It may help you to reach orgasm or to learn to relax enough to avoid pain during sex. Counseling can help you to adjust to the treatment you and your doctor choose.
You may find that using a vacuum device requires some practice or adjustment. Using the device may make your penis feel cold or numb and have a purple color. You also may have bruising on your penis. However, the bruises are most often painless and disappear in a few days. Vacuum devices may weaken ejaculation but, in most cases, the devices do not affect the pleasure of climax, or orgasm.
When stimulated by the nerves, the spongy tissue arranges itself in such a way that more blood can be stored in the penis. The veins running through the outer sheath of the penis then compress which stops the blood from leaving the penis. As the blood is stopped from flowing out, the penis fills with blood and stretches within the outer casing, giving an erection.
Erectile dysfunction can occur as a side effect of medication taken for another health condition. Common culprits are high blood pressure meds, antidepressants, some diuretics, beta-blockers, heart medication, cholesterol meds, antipsychotic drugs, hormone drugs, corticosteroids, chemotherapy, and medication for male pattern baldness, among others.
It is estimated that up to 20 million American men frequently suffer from impotence and that it strikes up to half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70. Doctors used to think that most cases of impotence were psychological in origin, but they now recognize that, at least in older men, physical causes may play a primary role in 60% or more of all cases. In men over the age of 60, the leading cause is atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can restrict the flow of blood to the penis. Injury or disease of the connective tissue, such as Peyronie's disease, may prevent the corpora cavernosa from completely expanding. Damage to the nerves of the penis, from certain types of surgery or neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, may also cause impotence. Men with diabetes are especially at risk for impotence because of their high risk of both atherosclerosis and a nerve disease called diabetic neuropathy.
Martha K Terris, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Cancer Society, American College of Surgeons, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Urological Association, Association of Women Surgeons, New York Academy of Sciences, Society of Government Service Urologists, Society of University Urologists, Society of Urology Chairpersons and Program Directors, and Society of Women in Urology
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