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:
The relationship between ED and couple relation impairment is well documented. In our population of subjects consulting for sexual dysfunction, subjects reporting conflicts within the couple were characterized by a broad spectrum of sexual symptoms, including a severe extent of ED, and they had a higher SIEDY Scale 2 score, indicating a strong relational component in the pathogenesis of ED (88). If on one hand, it is easy to understand that problems in couple relationship can cause ED, the other way around is also feasible. In the Female Experience of Men’s Attitudes to Life Events and Sexuality (FEMALES) study, 292 female partners of men aged more than 20 years complaining for ED were involved in a survey assessing the quality of their sexual experience (89). In this study, women reported a significant deterioration of satisfaction for sexual intercourse after the onset of ED in their partners. The satisfaction, sexual desire, arousal and orgasm were then improved in women whose partner used PDE5i (89). The role of ED as a risk factor for female dysfunction, including impairment in arousal, orgasm, sexual satisfaction and sexual pain, has been also confirmed in a study involving 632 sexually active couples, whose male partner age ranged 18–80 years (90).
Many common medications for treating hypertension, depression, and high blood lipids (high cholesterol) can contribute to erectile dysfunction (see above). Treatment of hypertension is an example. There are many different types (classes) of medications for high blood pressure; these include beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, diuretics (medications that increase urine volume), angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors), and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs). Patients may use these medications alone or in combination to control blood pressure. Some of these medications can cause troubles with erections. For example, Inderal (a beta-blocker) and hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic) cause erectile dysfunction, while calcium channel blockers and ACE inhibitors do not seem to affect erectile function. On the other hand, other medications (such as angiotensin receptor blockers [ARB] including losartan [Cozaar] and valsartan [Diovan]) may actually help with erections. Therefore, if possible, you may benefit from changing your medications, but this requires approval by your prescribing health care provider.
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.
If you’re experiencing psychological ED, you may benefit from talk therapy. Therapy can help you manage your mental health. You’ll likely work with your therapist over several sessions, and your therapist will address things like major stress or anxiety factors, feelings around sex, or subconscious conflicts that could be affecting your sexual well-being.
As recently as two decades ago, doctors tended to blame erectile dysfunction on psychological problems or, with older men, on the normal aging process. Today, the pendulum of medical opinion has swung away from both notions. While arousal takes longer as a man ages, chronic erectile dysfunction warrants medical attention. Moreover, the difficulty is often not psychological in origin. Today, urologists believe that physical factors underlie the majority of cases of persistent erectile dysfunction in men over age 50.
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.
Combination therapy has proven effective for some men who don’t respond adequately to oral medicines. The idea is to use two drugs with different mechanisms of action for better results. Commonly, sildenafil is used in combination with pellets of alprostadil (synthetic prostaglandin E1) that are inserted into the urethra (the tube in the penis that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body). Alprostadil also increases the blood supply to the penis, but by different means.
It can be embarrassing to talk to your doctor about your sex life, but it's the best way to get treated and get back to being intimate with your partner. Your doctor can pinpoint the source of the problem and may recommend lifestyle interventions like quitting smoking or losing weight. Other treatment options may include ED drugs, hormone treatments, a suction device that helps create an erection, or counseling.
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.
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.
These are not currently approved by the FDA for ED management, but they may be offered through research studies (clinical trials). Patients who are interested should discuss the risks and benefits (informed consent) of each, as well as costs before starting any clinical trials. Most therapies not approved by the FDA are not covered by government or private insurance benefits.
Patients should continue testosterone therapy only if there is improvement in the symptoms of hypogonadism and should be monitored regularly. You will need periodic blood tests for testosterone levels and blood tests to monitor your blood count and PSA. Testosterone therapy has health risks, and thus doctors should closely monitor its use. Testosterone therapy can worsen sleep apnea and congestive heart failure.
With that said, the only data we’re going to focus on here are the results of large, nationally representative sex surveys because they offer the best source of information when it comes to trying to establish realistic prevalence rates and how they might have changed over time. Data from convenience samples of college students just aren’t reliable enough for these purposes.
The contents of your medicine cabinet could affect your performance in the bedroom. A long list of common drugs can cause ED, including certain blood pressure drugs, pain medications, and antidepressants. But do not stop taking any medicines without talking to your doctor first. Street drugs like amphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana can cause sexual problems in men, too.
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.
No matter what the cause of erectile dysfunction, it is likely to cause feelings of stress and other emotional reactions. It’s also not uncommon for erection problems to cause tension in a relationship, particularly if one or both partners withdraws emotionally and the problem is not talked about. And it’s possible for a man’s renewed ability to have intercourse after a period of no sexual activity to stir up relationship issues.
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.
Like all diabetic complications, ED can occur even when you have followed your doctor’s advice and carefully managed your diabetes. Also like all diabetes complications, ED is less likely to occur with good blood sugar control. Poorly controlled diabetes and high cholesterol increase the chances of vascular complications, which may lead to ED or other circulatory problems. In addition, regular smoking and alcohol use can contribute to ED.