In the evaluation of physical causes of ED, the health care provider is assessing for conditions that may affect the nerves, arteries, veins, and functional anatomy of the penis (for example, the tunica albuginea, the tissue surround the corpora). In determining a physical (or organic) cause, your health care provider will first rule out certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart and vascular disease, low male hormone level, prostate cancer, and diabetes, which are associated with erectile dysfunction. Medical/surgical treatment of these conditions may also cause ED. In addition to these health conditions, certain systemic digestive (gastrointestinal) and respiratory diseases are known to result in erectile dysfunction:
Depression and anxiety: Psychological factors may be responsible for erectile dysfunction. These factors include stress, anxiety, guilt, depression, widower syndrome, low self-esteem, posttraumatic stress disorder, and fear of sexual failure (performance anxiety). It is also worth noting that many medications used for treatment of depression and other psychiatric disorders may cause erectile dysfunction or ejaculatory problems.
Though stress and anxiety are two different things, they are closely related when it comes to issues of erectile dysfunction. In many cases, stress is the underlying factor, but it causes anxiety which then triggers more stress – it is a vicious cycle. If you take a look at the physical side of things, however, you’ll see that stress and anxiety are even more closely related than you may realize.
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Diabetes occurs when you have too much sugar circulating in your bloodstream. There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, which affects less than 10 percent of those who have diabetes, and type 2 diabetes, which accounts for over 90 percent of diabetes cases. Type 2 diabetes often develops as a result of being overweight or inactive. Approximately 30 million Americans have diabetes, and about half of them are men.
Excessive drinking is a common cause of erectile dysfunction, according to the Mayo Clinic. As the amount of alcohol in the blood increases, the alcohol decreases the brain’s ability to sense sexual stimulation. As a depressant, alcohol directly affects the penis by interfering with parts of the nervous system that are essential for sexual arousal and orgasm, including respiration, circulation, and sensitivity of nerve endings, according to Health Promotion at Brown University.
Obesity. Obesity and erectile dysfunction in men has unfortunately become an epidemic in this country, affecting children, teenagers, young adults and up. This disease tends to follow men and women through adulthood, if not addressed. Obesity leads to heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. This trifecta results in the three main medical causes of erectile dysfunction.
Currently, there are no therapies that cure erectile dysfunction. However, a number of effective therapies are available that allow an individual to have an erection when desired. Depending on the cause of the erectile dysfunction, certain therapies may be more effective than others. Although there is limited data on lifestyle modification, intuitively, decreasing risk factors for erectile dysfunction may help prevent progression of disease.
These findings demonstrate the importance of recognizing a possible organic component of ED even in younger men. In fact, in younger, more than in older men, who are by definition at high CV risk, searching for signs of metabolic or CV disorders can help identify those men who apparently healthy, have subtle and subclinical conditions that can be treated before the damage becomes clinically overt.
Diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), elevations in blood lipids or cholesterol are considered blood vessel problems and have all been associated with Erectile Dysfunction. The blood vessel abnormalities caused by these diseases affect vessels throughout the body and often produce other symptoms of vascular diseases. Diabetics and patients with hypertension frequently have heart disease. These conditions typically interfere with the ability of the penile vessels to work properly and ultimately cause ED.
If the patient reports a history of trauma to the genitals that preceded his erectile dysfunction, further evaluation with pharmacologic injection and penile color duplex ultrasound (PCDU) would be indicated to assess for arterial insufficiency or venous occlusive dysfunction (19). Prior to PCDU, however, you might give him a trial of oral PDE5 inhibitors. If those medications are effective, you have effectively ruled out significant arterial insufficiency or venous leakage disease as an etiology. Regardless of outcome of PCDU, no surgical intervention would likely be offered to this man who responds well to oral agents.
Poor cardiovascular health reduces your body’s ability to deliver blood needed to produce erections. In a study published in 2004, researchers followed male participants for 25 years. The researchers found that heart disease risk factors predicted which men were most at risk of future ED. Numerous studies have strongly tied four major cardiovascular risk factors to ED:
Before taking any medication for erectile dysfunction, including over-the-counter supplements and herbal remedies, get your doctor's OK. Medications for erectile dysfunction do not work in all men and might be less effective in certain conditions, such as after prostate surgery or if you have diabetes. Some medications might also be dangerous if you:
Alcohol is a depressant, not an aphrodisiac or a libido enhancer. Excessive consumption can interfere with the ability to achieve an erection at any age, and even occasional drinking can make erectile dysfunction worse in older men. Feloney advises using alcohol in moderation: "In small amounts, alcohol can relieve anxiety and may help with erectile dysfunction, but if you drink too much, it can cause erectile dysfunction or make the problem worse."
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of hims, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
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.
Sexuality and erection are controlled by multiple areas of the human brain including the hypothalamus, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. Stimulatory or inhibitory messages are relayed to the spinal erection centers to facilitate or inhibit erection (5). Two mechanisms have been proposed to explain the inhibition of erection in psychogenic dysfunction: direct inhibition of the spinal erection center by the brain as an exaggeration of the normal suprasacral inhibition and excessive sympathetic outflow or elevated peripheral catecholamine levels, which may increase penile smooth muscle tone and prevent the relaxation necessary for erection (8). Animal studies demonstrate that the stimulation of sympathetic nerves or systemic infusion of epinephrine causes detumescence of the erect penis (6,7). Clinically, higher levels of serum norepinephrine have been reported in patients with psychogenic ED than in normal controls or patients with vasculogenic ED (9).
The initial step in evaluating ED is a thorough sexual history and physical exam. The history can help in distinguishing between the primary and psychogenic causes. It is important to explore the onset, progression, and duration of the problem. If a man gives a history of “no sexual problems until one night,” the problem is most likely related to performance anxiety, disaffection, or an emotional problem. Aside from these causes, only radical prostatectomy or other overt genital tract trauma causes a sudden loss of male sexual function.
Total testosterone levels: Health care professionals should obtain a patient's blood samples for total testosterone levels in the early morning (before 8 a.m.) because the testosterone levels go up and down throughout the day. If you have a low testosterone level, a health care professional should check it again to confirm that it is truly low. In some men, a specialized test measuring the active form of testosterone (free or bioavailable testosterone) may be recommended.
Erectile dysfunction in older men. Because erections primarily involve the blood vessels, it is not surprising that the most common causes in older men are conditions that block blood flow to the penis, such as atherosclerosis or diabetes. Another vascular cause may be a faulty vein, which lets blood drain too quickly from the penis. Other physical disorders, as well as hormonal imbalances and certain operations, may also result in erectile dysfunction.
Where alcohol may succeed as an aphrodisiac in getting people “in the mood” it may fail in execution. During an erection, the penis fills with blood then the vessels close, preventing backflow, so that the penis remains erect. In the short term, overconsumption of alcohol causes the blood vessels in the penis to expand, allowing for more blood flow, but prevents those vessels from closing. As a result, the penis may become erect but not remain so, as there is nothing to prevent backflow.
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.
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There are two kinds of surgery for ED: one involves implantation of a penile prosthesis; the other attempts vascular reconstruction. Expert opinion about surgical implants has changed during recent years; today, surgery is no longer so widely recommended. There are many less-invasive and less-expensive options, and surgery should be considered only as a last resort.