Impotence, also known as erectile dysfunction or ED, is a condition in which a man is unable to get or hold an erection long enough to have a satisfactory sex life. Impotence is a common problem, affecting up to half of Australian men between the ages of 40 and 70 years. The risk of developing erectile dysfunction increases as you get older.In the past, doctors considered impotence to be a mainly psychological problem, caused by performance anxiety or stress. Now, doctors know that many cases of impotence have a physical cause, which usually can be treated. Often, a combination of physical and psychological factors contributes to erectile dysfunction.Physical causes of impotencePhysical causes of impotence can include:problems with blood to flow into and out of the penis;damage to the nerves that send signals from the body’s central nervous system to the penis; and, more rarely,a deficiency in testosterone or other hormones.Some medicines can contribute to impotence, as can some types of surgery and radiotherapy treatments.Blocked blood vessels to the penisA very common cause of impotence is when blood flow into the penis is reduced. This can be due to atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries. In atherosclerosis, the arteries are clogged and narrowed, resulting in reduced blood flow.Risk factors for atherosclerosis include:high cholesterol;high blood pressure;obesity;sleep apnoea;diabetes; andsmoking.If your erection problems are caused by atherosclerosis, there is a chance that the arteries in other parts of your body (e.g. the coronary arteries that supply your heart) are also affected by atherosclerosis. In fact, erection problems may be the first sign that you are at risk of coronary heart disease.Because the arteries to the penis are narrower than those to the heart, you may develop symptoms of erectile dysfunction before you experience any symptoms of heart disease, such as angina. So seeing your doctor about erection problems may be important for your overall physical health.Impotence can also be caused by a blood clot that prevents enough blood from flowing into the penis to cause an erection.Venous leakageIn some men, blood can flow in to the penis easily, but the problem is that it leaks out again, so an erection cannot be sustained. This is called venous leakage. Doctors aren’t certain of the cause of venous leakage, but they can perform surgery to help repair it.Medicines that can cause impotenceMany medicines can cause erection problems as a side effect, including:diuretics (sometimes known as ‘water tablets’ - often used for high blood pressure);high blood pressure medications;cholesterol-lowering medicines (including statins);some types of antipsychotics;antidepressants;cancer treatments;some medicines used to treat heartburn and stomach ulcers;antihistamines;some pain medicines; andcertain epilepsy medications.If you experience impotence after starting a new medication, tell your doctor, who may be able to prescribe a different medicine for you. Don’t stop taking a medicine without first consulting your doctor. You should also tell your doctor about any over-the-counter medicines or complementary remedies you may be taking.The following table contains a list of specific medicines that may cause or contribute to erectile dysfunction. This list may not cover all types of medicines that can cause erectile dysfunction, so always ask your doctor if you are in doubt. Also, for some of these medicines ED is a very rare side effect. Most men taking these medicines do not experience erectile dysfunction.Medicines that may cause erectile dysfunctionType of medicineExamplesACE inhibitorscaptopril (Capoten), enalapril (Renitec), perindopril (Perindo), ramipril (Tritace), and othersAntidepressantsamitriptyline (Endep), clomipramine (Anafranil), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Aropax), sertraline (Zoloft), venlafaxine (Altven, Efexor), and othersAnti-epilepticsclonazepam (Rivotril), pregabalin (Lyrica)Antifungalsitraconazole (Sporanox)Anti-ulcer drugscimetidine (Magicul), nizatidine (Tazac), ranitidine (Zantac), and othersBeta-blockerspropranolol (Inderal), metoprolol (Betaloc, Lopresor), and othersOther blood pressure-lowering medicinesclonidine (Catapres), lercanidipine/enalapril (Zan-Extra), losartan (Cozaar), perindopril/amlodipine (Coveram), olmesartan/amlodipine (Sevikar), telmisartan/amlodipine (Twynsta), valsartan/hydrochlorothiazide (Co-Diovan)Calcium-channel blockersdiltiazem (Cardizem), felodipine (Plendil), nifedipine (Adalat)Cholesterol-lowering drugsatorvastatin (Lipitor), ezetimibe/simvastatin (Vytorin), fluvastatin (Lescol, Vastin), gemfibrozil (Ausgem), pravastatin (Pravachol), simvastatin (APO-simvastatin, Lipex, Zocor), and othersDiuretics ('water tablets')bumetanide (Burinex), chlorthalidone (Hygroton), spironolactone (Aldactone), and othersSchizophrenia drugsamisulpride (Solian, Sulprix), haloperidol (Haldol, Serenace), olanzapine (Lanzek, Ozin, Zypine, Zyprexa), paliperidone (Invega), risperidone (Rispa, Risperdal), ziprasidone (Zeldox)Combination cholesterol-lowering and anti-hypertensiveamlodipine/atorvastatin (Caduet, Cadatin)Pain medicinesfentanyl (Denpax, Durogesic), hydromorphone (Jurnista), morphine (Momex SR, MS Contin), oxycodone (OxyContin, OxyNorm, Targin), tramadolMiscellaneousoestrogens, antiandrogens, anticancer drugs and some chemotherapy treatments, baclofen (Clofen, Lioresal); cyproterone (Androcur, Cyprohexal, Cyprostat), degarelix (Firmagon), etoricoxib (Arcoxia), finasteride (Proscar and Propecia), flutamide (Flutamin), rotigotine (Neupro), triptorelin (Diphereline)*The names in brackets are just some examples of the trade names each specific medicine is marketed under in Australia. The medicine may also be known by other trade names.Diabetes and erectile dysfunctionMen who have diabetes have a higher risk of developing impotence than other men. Diabetes contributes to impotence because it can damage blood vessels and cause a type of nerve damage known as peripheral neuropathy.Hormones and impotenceLow levels of the male hormone, testosterone, are more commonly linked to a lowered sex drive, rather than impotence itself. Only a small percentage of cases of impotence are caused by hormone deficiency.Low testosterone levels may be the result of a condition called hypogonadism, in which the testicles don’t produce enough testosterone. More rarely, low testosterone can be caused by the pituitary (a small gland at the base of the brain) not secreting sufficient hormones to stimulate the testes to produce testosterone. The pituitary is also sometimes affected by small benign (non-cancerous) tumours that secrete prolactin, another hormone that can cause impotence.Mildly decreased levels of testosterone are often not due to specific testicular or pituitary problems, but rather stress or depression. In this situation, testosterone replacement is rarely of any benefit.Other hormone problems, including thyroid disease, can also cause impotence.Prostate cancer and erectile dysfunctionThe advanced stages of prostate cancer can affect the nerves and arteries that are vital for an erection.Radiation treatment for prostate cancer can harm the erectile tissues of the penis, and prostate cancer surgery can cause nerve or artery damage to the penis.Treatment for advanced prostate cancer often includes medicines that counteract testosterone, and commonly cause erectile dysfunction as well as loss of sexual interest.Peyronie’s diseasePeyronie’s disease is an uncommon condition that affects a man’s sex life because his penis curves abnormally and causes pain when he has an erection. He might also be unable to have a hard erection. The curvature of the penis is caused by a scar, called a plaque, that forms in the penis.Other physical causes of impotenceSeveral other factors and conditions can contribute to erectile dysfunction, including the following.Depression. Many men find that when they’re suffering from depression, they lose interest in sex and can’t get or keep an erection. Asking your doctor for treatments for depression may help alleviate your erection problems as well.Smoking contributes to vascular disease (disease of the blood vessels), so it can contribute to erectile dysfunction by affecting blood flow to the penis. Giving up smoking often has a beneficial effect on erectile function.Excessive alcohol use. Alcoholism can cause permanent nerve damage, resulting in impotence. This nerve damage is called peripheral neuropathy. Long-term alcohol use can impair the liver’s ability to function, resulting in a hormone imbalance in which a man has too much of the female sex hormone, oestrogen. On a day-to-day level, alcohol dulls the central nervous system, adversely affecting sexual response.Illicit drug use. Illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, and amphetamines act on the central nervous system, impairing the body’s ability to respond sexually.Certain exercises. Nerve and artery damage can be caused by prolonged cycling, rodeo riding, or use of a rowing machine, resulting in the inability to get an erection. Often, minimising the use of hard bicycle seats and exercise machine seats, as well as correct positioning of the seat, will help restore sexual function.Surgery to organs near the nerve pathways of the penis, such as the bladder, rectum and prostate, can cause nerve or artery damage to the penis, resulting in the inability to have an erection.Injuries. Impotence can be caused by spinal cord injury; injury to your sex organs; or a pelvic fracture, which can cause damage to the nerves of the penis, or damage the blood vessels, resulting in reduced blood flow to the penis.Conditions affecting the nervous system. Multiple sclerosis (MS) and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease, can damage the nerves involved in erections.Psychological causes of impotenceMost cases of impotence have physical causes, but, in some men, psychological factors are the main contributors to impotence.Impotence that’s triggered by psychological factors is more common in men who are sexually inexperienced. Psychological erectile dysfunction may only occur when you’re with just one particular person. You’re also more likely to have morning erections, and be able to have an erection when you masturbate, than men whose impotence has a physical cause.Here are some psychological factors that can have an impact on your erections.Stress and anxietyWhen you’re stressed and focusing on other issues apart from sex, you might find that you don’t want to have sex as often and there might be a drop in your ability to perform when you do try. You might find that tackling the source of your stress can have benefits in the bedroom as well.Fear of failureAnxiety about your sexual prowess (commonly called performance anxiety) can, in itself, contribute to failure. By putting pressure on yourself, you become too anxious to get an adequate erection.Most men experience isolated episodes of erectile failure. Even when the transient physical cause has passed, anxiety that it may recur is sufficient to prevent erection. Anxiety, whether about something specifically sexual or part of a wider anxiety syndrome, is never helpful to good sexual function.Problems with your relationship and impotenceImpotence may be a manifestation of a poor relationship, or a problematic time in a relationship. Sexual boredom, tension or anger among partners, and lack of intimacy and communication are all possible triggers of erectile dysfunction. In these cases, seeing a counsellor may help.It’s worth remembering that impotence is a complex medical condition, which may have more than one cause. For example, if impotence is the result of a side effect of medicine or an underlying disease, the anxiety caused by lack of performance may perpetuate the erectile dysfunction even after the physical cause has been dealt with.Almost any chronic (ongoing) physical or mental health disorder, including those with no direct effect on penile nerves or blood supply, can have a powerful effect on sexuality, sexual self-image and erectile function.If you’re worried about your sexual response or the quality of your erections, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor, who has access to treatments that can help. Last Reviewed: 16 December 2016
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Other treatment options such as penile self-injection therapy, external vacuum pumps and the medicated urethral system for erection are on rare occasions an effective long-term treatment. A very small percentage of men will continue with these treatments as evidenced by a very high drop out rate and a very low refill rate for these treatments. These procedures require extensive planning which interfere with sexual spontaneity and are really not a realistic long-term treatment for young patients with permanent ED.
Ultrasound with Doppler imaging (ultrasound plus evaluation of blood flow in the arteries and veins) can provide additional information about blood flow of the penis and may help in the evaluation of patients prior to surgical intervention. This study is typically performed after the injection of a chemical that causes the arteries to open up, a vasodilator (prostaglandin E1), into the corpora cavernosa in order to cause dilation of blood vessels and promote blood flow into the penis. The rate of blood flow into the penis can be measured along with an evaluation of problems with compression of the veins.
In many of these cases, a discussion between the physician, the man with erectile dysfunction, and possibly his partner can help to resolve the issues leading to treatment failure. For men who experience severe side effects, can’t take the drugs for other reasons (such as taking medicines such as nitroglycerin), or don’t respond in spite of further education on the correct use of the drugs, there are other treatment options that can help most men remain sexually active.
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.
ED may occur with or without other sexual dysfunction, including decreased libido (decreased interest in sexual activity), orgasmic dysfunction (troubles achieving an orgasm/climax), and ejaculatory dysfunction (problems with the fluid released during sex, including lack of ejaculation [anejaculation], small volume ejaculate, ejaculation that occurs too quickly [premature ejaculation], ejaculate that goes backward into the bladder [retrograde ejaculation] and pain with ejaculation).
Booze. Most men have learned: One too many cocktails doesn’t improve performance; instead, it can have the opposite effect. During a recent study of 1,506 Chinese males, the men who drank three or more drinks a week were more likely to have ED or some form of sexual dysfunction. “Men may find that alcohol decreases social inhibition, which makes it easier to approach a woman,” says Montague. “But alcohol is a depressant, and at higher quantities it can reduce both a man’s desire and ability to perform.”
Erectile function can be impaired in several endocrine disorders and treating these conditions can improve ED (43). This is the case of adrenal insufficiency, whose treatment with glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid replacement is able to improve erectile function (44). Similarly, an adequate control of thyroid function in hyper- and hypothyroid patients is associated with an improvement in ED (45,46). However, although ED is a common complaint in subjects with Addison’s disease, hypo- and even more hyperthyroidism (45-48), the prevalence of these disorders is subjects with ED is not so high for recommending the routine screening of adrenal and thyroid hormone in these men (49). In contrast with the low prevalence of adrenal or thyroid disturbances in ED subjects, testosterone (T) deficiency is frequently found in subjects with ED (49,50) and, in turn, low T is frequently associated with the occurrence of sexual dysfunctions, including ED, even in general population (51). Accordingly, the Fourth ICSM recommends the routine assessment of T levels in patients with ED (43). The assessment of prolactin (PRL) in ED patients is controversial because an actual pathological increase in PRL levels (severe hyperprolactinemia: prolactin ≥735 mU/L or 35 ng/mL) is rarely found in ED men (52). Furthermore, the role of PRL in inducing ED is still not clarified. Hyperprolactinemia has been consistently associated with loss of sexual desire (43,53) and development of hypogonadotropic hypogonadism, both conditions that can in turn induce ED. However, a direct role of high PRL levels in inducing an impairment of erectile function is not consistently proven (52,54) and, conversely, more recent evidence suggests that lower, rather than higher, PRL levels are associated with impaired erectile function (55-57). For these reasons, at present, the assessment of PRL levels in subjects with ED is not routinely recommended (43) and it could be advisable only in men with hypogonadotropic hypogonadism, as a possible cause of this condition.
There are a number of reasons a man may not achieve the desired result from an oral erectile dysfunction drug. In some cases, a man may experience drug side effects severe enough to outweigh any potential benefit of taking the drug. Possible side effects of these drugs include headache, facial flushing, nasal congestion, and transient abnormal vision. (In October 2007, the FDA added a warning about sudden hearing loss to the package labels of oral erectile dysfunction drugs. While it’s not absolutely clear that the drugs can cause sudden hearing loss, a number of cases have been reported in men within hours or days of taking one of the drugs.)
In the short term, alcohol relaxes muscles in the penis, letting blood to flow in (which is a good thing). However, alcohol also prevents other blood vessels from closing and trapping all the extra blood. Erections depend on trapping increased blood flow in the erectile tissue of the penis. If you don’t trap that extra blood, you don’t get an erection. In the long run, excessive alcohol consumption can cause liver scarring, high blood pressure, and can damage your blood vessels resulting in erectile dysfunction.
Vacuum therapy devices have a few disadvantages. One must interrupt foreplay to use them. You must use the correct-size tension ring and remove it, to prevent penile bruising, after sustaining the erection for 30 minutes. Initial use may produce some soreness. Such devices may be unsuitable for men with certain bleeding disorders. In general, vacuum constriction devices are successful in management of long-term ED.