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What has been excluded entirely from all recent discussions of ED in young men is a concept presented many years ago—the concept of increased sympathetic tone as an organic etiology of “psychogenic” erectile dysfunction in young men (5). Previous studies have shown that elevated central sympathetic tone may be one cause of impotence (6,7). This article focuses on the presentation, work-up, and treatment of young men (age: 16–35 years old) with complaints of ED, and we will attempt to present a new method of approaching these patients. It is important to identify the precise etiology of ED in these men before proceeding with potentially unnecessary evaluation and treatment as the process can be anxiety-provoking, invasive, and costly and may provide an unreliable diagnosis which produces further psychological distress in these psychologically fragile young men.
Think of erectile dysfunction as your body’s “check engine light.” The blood vessels in the penis are smaller than other parts of the body, so underlying conditions like blocked arteries, heart disease, or high blood pressure usually show up as ED before something more serious like a heart attack or stroke. ED is your body’s way of saying, “Something is wrong.” And the list of things that cause erectile dysfunction can include:
The American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that more than 30 million men in the US experience ED. And they expect that number to double by 2025, largely due to the fact that erectile dysfunction is affecting more and more guys in their 20’s and 30’s. ED in your 20’s is becoming more common, and that can signal some serious health risks to a growing number of young men.
Erections are more complicated than you think. Your brain, nerves, heart, blood vessels, and a whole lot of hormones have to work together perfectly or nothing happens. It’s a lot to ask, and sometimes things break down. And while ED happens to most guys at some point in their lives, erectile dysfunction isn’t something you can just ignore and hope it goes away.
This patient has thoroughly researched erectile dysfunction on the internet and has a powerful knowledge base from which he draws reference. He is also emotionally labile. The most urgent recommendation for this patient is that he seek appropriate psychiatric treatment to help in management of his psychiatric conditions and suicidal ideation. It was also recommended that he seek care with a sexual therapist to work through additional issues related to his “addiction” to masturbation. During his urologic visit we performed both cold and hot perception testing and biothesiometer, which were normal. He was displeased with these findings as they were incongruent with his chief complaints; normal results caused him to become tearful. A penile ultrasound was performed without injection of a pharmacologic agent to assess the appearance of his cavernous tissue and cavernous arteries, which had normal appearance and measurement, respectively, on ultrasound. (This quick bedside procedure has the potential to be both diagnostic and therapeutic for the patient; the importance of this cannot be underestimated).
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.
Cultivating and maintaining a healthy relationship is not easy. It takes time to truly get to know someone and to trust them. If you and your partner are experiencing trouble with your relationship, it could very well bleed over into your sex life. It could also be the case that your erectile dysfunction is creating problems in the relationship – it is another example of the cycle of ED that can affect many different aspects of your life. Communication is the first step in resolving this particular cause for psychological ED but it is also one of the most difficult steps to take.
Although few studies specifically evaluated the clinical characteristics of ED in younger men, this problem is increasingly frequent. Healthcare professionals both inside and outside of Sexual Medicine are likely to deal with young men complaining for ED and it is important that basic knowledge on this topic is available. In fact, young men reporting ED risk being dismissed without any specific medical assessment, including medical history or physical exam, owing to the assumption that ED in younger is a self-limiting condition, without any clinical consequence. However, evidence shows that, similar to middle-aged or older men, ED can be the consequence of the combination of organic, psychological and relational factors and all these components must be assessed for a correct clinical management. In particular, ED in younger, even more than in older men, can be considered a harbinger of CVD and it offers the unique opportunity to unearth the presence of CV risk factors, thus allowing effective and high quality preventive interventions.
Getting (and maintaining) an erection requires a surprising amount of things to go right. You have to get aroused, then pass that signal from your brain, through your nerves and hormones, to your blood vessels and muscles before an erection can even happen. If one thing goes wrong in that complicated exchange between your cardiovascular, and nerve system, and your hormone levels, blood vessels, and even your mood the result is usually erectile dysfunction. In other words, getting an erection is hard.
Nonsustained erection with detumescence after penetration is most commonly caused by anxiety or the vascular steel syndrome. In the vascular steel syndrome, blood is diverted from the engorged corpora cavernosae to accommodate the oxygen requirements of the thrusting pelvis. Questions should be asked regarding the presence or absence of nocturnal or morning erections and the ability to masturbate. Complete loss of nocturnal erections and the ability to masturbate are signs of neurological or vascular disease. It is important to remember that sexual desire is not lost with ED—only the ability to act on those emotions.
A full battery of labs was ordered and returned normal. A PCDU was ordered which revealed normal arterial inflow with velocities greater than >40 cm/sec with increased end diastolic velocities suggestive of venous leak. After pharmacologic erection, he developed a partial erection that resolved within 1 minute. This was consistent with a diagnosis of venous leak impotence. Pharmacologic cavernosography was performed and revealed bilateral crural leakage. He underwent infrapubic bilateral crural ligation of the penis, which cured his ED. The patient returned to clinic 6 months later with recurrent impotence. A pharmacologic cavernosography revealed recurrent venous leak. Additional crural ligation via a perineal approach was performed. Two months later he reported normal penile erections, and the result has lasted for more than 5 years. He continues to follow up annually in clinic.
Peyronie's disease is a condition associated with ED. Peyronie's disease is thought to result from minor repetitive trauma to the penis that leads to scarring of the tunica albuginea. It is often associated with a palpable scar in the penis, plaque. The scarring can cause the penis to curve in the direction of the scar, along with painful erections and erectile dysfunction. Some treatments for Peyronie's disease (excision of the plaque and placement of new tissue in its place, grafting) may cause ED also.
Epidemiological studies consistently show that prevalence of erectile dysfunction (ED) increases with ageing. Nonetheless, complaints of ED even in younger men are becoming more and more frequent. Healthcare professionals working in Sexual Medicine but even those operating in different clinical contexts might be adequately prepared to answer this increasing requirement. ED in younger men is likely to be overlooked and dismissed without performing any medical assessment, even the most basic ones, such as collection of medical history and physical exam. This is due to the widespread assumption that ED in younger individuals is a self-limiting condition, which does not deserve any clinical evaluation or therapy and can be managed only with patient reassurance. However, evidence shows that, in younger subjects, organic, psychological and relational conditions can contribute to the pathogenesis of ED and all these conditions might be evaluated and treated, whenever necessary. Among the organic conditions contributing to the onset of ED, metabolic and cardiovascular (CV) risk factors are surprisingly of particular relevance in this age group. In fact, in younger men with ED, even more than in older ones, recognizing CV risk factors or conditions suggestive of cardio-metabolic derangements can help identifying men who, although at low absolute risk due to young age, carry a high relative risk for development of CV events. In this view, the assessment of a possible organic component of ED even in younger individuals acquires a pivotal importance, because it offers the unique opportunity to unearth the presence of CV risk factors, thus allowing effective and high quality preventive interventions.
When blood sugar levels are out of control, nerve and blood vessel damage occurs throughout your body. Nerve damage breaks down the ability to turn sexual stimulation into an erection.6 Poor blood circulation reduces blood flow to the penis. Together they impact your ability to get an erection that is rigid and lasts long enough for sexual satisfaction.
This is a 17-year-old male with a past medical history of insomnia, anxiety and depression who presents with complaints of gradual onset (2 years ago) of decreased ability to obtain and maintain erections adequate for intercourse. He reports normal nocturnal erections “most days of the week”. He does not masturbate because he feels that masturbation may have desensitized his brain and caused ED; however, he can masturbate and have an erection with normal orgasm/ejaculation. He has had a successful erection and intercourse with a partner, last time 2 weeks ago. He feels that his ED might have been associated with SSRI treatment but noted no improvement after stopping his SSRI. Cialis 5 mg is effective. He reports normal libido “but not where it was”. His testosterone (T) and free T are normal. He is in the care of a sexual therapist and has read extensively on the internet. He takes trazodone nightly for sleep.
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.
A medical history focused on risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, hypertension, alcoholism, drug abuse, trauma, and endocrine problems including hypothyroidism, low testosterone levels, and hyperprolactinemia, is very important. Commonly used drugs that disrupt male sexual function are spironolactone (Aldactone), sympathetic blockers such as clonidine (Catapres), guanethidine (Islemin), methyldopa (Aldomet), thiazide diuretics, most antidepressants, ketoconazole (Nizoral), cimetidine (Tagamet), alcohol, methadone, heroin, and cocaine. Finally, assessment of psychiatric history will help identify emotional issues such as interpersonal conflict, performance anxiety, depression, or anxiety.
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.
Ageing is one of the most important unmodifiable risk factors for the development of metabolic disorders and CV diseases. Accordingly, the common algorithms for the estimation of risk of forthcoming diabetes or CV events include age as a factor of the equations (24-29). The weight attributed to age for estimating the risk in these equations is often so significant that younger men are automatically considered at low risk, irrespective of the other possible risk factors. However, even in younger subjects, overlooking the contribution of cardio-metabolic factors to pathogenesis of ED is a mistake that can lead to the loss of the opportunity of early recognition of patients who deserve a change in life-style or a pharmacological correction of risk factors. ED, besides being considered one of the clinical manifestations of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases (CVD), is regarded as an early marker of CV events (17). In fact, according to Montorsi’s hypothesis (30), impairment of penile artery blood flow occurs before that of coronary or carotid arteries, whose diameter is greater and needs longer time to acquire a clinically relevant damage. The clinical consequence of this pathological event is that ED often manifests earlier than myocardial infarction or stroke. In particular, it has been demonstrated that ED occurs on average three years before the first major adverse CV event (MACE) (31). Quite surprisingly, although CV risk increases with ageing, the role of ED as a harbinger of forthcoming MACE becomes progressively less evident. Data derived from almost 2,500 community-dwelling men aged 40–79 years, involved in the Olmsted County study show that ED is associated with an almost 50-fold higher risk of incident heart diseases in men aged 40–49 years, whereas the difference in risk between ED and non-ED men progressively declines in older men (32). The different CV risk associated with ED in different age bands has been confirmed by the meta-analysis of the available longitudinal studies (33). These observations suggest that, in younger men, the role of ED as a marker of CV risk is even more dramatic than in older ones and as a consequence, investigating the presence of metabolic or CV conditions in younger ED patients is pivotal for identifying men in whom an early life-style modification may avoid serious CV consequences. Even more than erection during sexual intercourse, erection during masturbation is considered a physiologic function that mirrors metabolic and CV health. In fact, erections during masturbation are far less affected by relational and psychological components than sex-related ones (34). In a population of subjects attending the Sexual Medicine and Andrology Unit of the University of Florence for sexual dysfunction, more than 2,500 men reported autoeroticism in the previous 3 months. Among these men, the impairment of erection during masturbation was associated with family and personal history of CVD (35), as well as with impaired response to the test with the intracavernous injection (ICI) of prostaglandin E1, which suggests an arteriogenic damage of penile arteries and predicts forthcoming MACE (36). For a subset of these men (n=862), information on the occurrence of MACE during a mean follow-up of 4.3 years was available and those who reported impaired erections during masturbation had a significantly higher incidence of MACE (35). However, when considering separately younger and older men, this association was confirmed only in younger ones, and it was still significant after excluding men reporting severe ED during masturbation (35). This suggests that the impairment of erection during masturbation is a symptom not completely overlapping with sex-related ED and that it can provide different and supplementary information, in particular when assessed in younger and apparently healthy men. Similarly to what is observed for erection during masturbation, acceleration of blood in penile arteries, as measured by the colour Doppler ultrasound in flaccid conditions, is associated with an adverse CV profile in men consulting for ED. A reduction in flaccid acceleration, which can be used by clinicians to objectively verify the arteriogenic origin of ED and to characterize the extent of a self-reported symptom, has been also associated with a future risk of CV events, with the association being significant in younger but not in older men (37).
Describing the epidemiology of ED in young men requires, first of all, defining what it is meant by youth. While the definition of old age is matter of discussion and a precise threshold does not exist, the most shared definition in Western Countries is age above 65 years (http://www.who.int/healthinfo/survey/ageingdefnolder/en/). Considering that most of the epidemiological studies on general populations aimed at studying health changes with age, enrol men more than 40 years, it seems reasonable to define young age as below 40 years. Epidemiological studies on erectile function, which considered the prevalence of ED according to age bands, consistently find a significant increase with ageing. Advancing age remains one of the most important unmodifiable risk factors for ED (1). Studies on ED mostly involve middle-aged and older men, with younger aged men often overlooked. In a multi-centre worldwide study, involving more than 27,000 men from eight countries, Rosen et al. (2) showed an ED prevalence of 8% among men aged 20–29 years and 11% among those aged 30–39 years. Most of the studies involving younger men and conducting age-stratified analyses have been performed in Europe, where the prevalence of ED in men younger than 40 years ranges between 1% to 10% (3-10). The prevalence reported in these studies is highly variable due to different methodologies used in defining ED, population accrual, acquisition of data and choice of tools for investigating erectile function. A smaller number of studies on this topic have been conducted outside Europe. Both in Australia (11,12) and in America (13-15), the available information suggests a similar range of prevalence of ED among young subjects, with the same extent of variability among studies. According to these data, ED in younger men, although still not extensively studied and largely overlooked by the scientific community, is a quite common condition. In a recent study conducted in a Urology Clinic, it has been observed that one out of four men seeking medical care for ED was younger than 40 years (16). In our Sexual Medicine and Andrology Unit, established in an Endocrinology setting at the University of Florence, medical consultations for younger men are infrequent, with a prevalence of men aged less than 40 years at only 14.1% of more than 3,000 men complaining of ED. However, when considering the new referrals to our Unit during the last 6 years, we can notice a progressive increase in prevalence of men below 40 years seeking medical care for ED (Figure 1). According to these data, ED is becoming a common concern even among young men, and the clinical practitioner in sexual medicine must become aware of how to manage the problem and avoid underestimating a symptom. The identification of ED in a young man may potentially provide a great deal of useful information that can help improve their quality and even length of life.
The obvious risks are the same that accompany any surgery: infection, pain, bleeding, and scarring. If for some reason the prosthesis or parts become damaged or dislocated, surgical removal may be necessary. With a general success rate of about 90 percent, any of the devices will restore erections, but they will not affect sexual desire, ejaculation, or orgasm.