For most men, improving erectile dysfunction means improving blood flow to the penis. Immediate relief often requires medications that increases nitric oxide (NO) in the blood vessels of the penis. NO causes the smooth muscle cells in the blood vessels of the penis to stretch, which increases the flow of blood. NO also keeps the smooth muscle cells younger and helps prevent and even reverse hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels over time. Proper diet (see more below) and regular exercise are key because both can boost NO.
Another common reason for failures of oral therapy is the absence of sexual or genital stimulation prior to attempting sexual intercourse. These medicines facilitate an erection by increasing blood flow to the penis, but they do not act as an aphrodisiac or as an initiator of the erection. A man who is not “in the mood” or does not have adequate physical stimulation will not respond with an erection.
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.
Stress is your body responding to your environment. And it’s a good thing—in limited doses. When you get stressed out your body makes chemicals like adrenaline that make you stronger, faster, fitter, and even able to think more clearly. Most people call this reaction the “fight-or-flight” response, and it’s a life-saver in dangerous situations. In a very real sense, adrenaline makes you a part-time superhero. The problems happen when your body deals with constant stress.
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.
Knowing about your history of ED will help your health provider learn if your problems are because of your desire for sex, erection function, ejaculation, or orgasm (climax). Some of these questions may seem private or even embarrassing. However, be assured that your doctor is a professional and your honest answers will help find the cause and best treatment for you.
Performance jitters. For some young men, the desire to perform well in bed can be so overwhelming that, in turn, it causes them to not perform at all. “When a younger man experiences ED, it often is associated with significant performance anxiety, which in turn increases the problem, sometimes turning a temporary situation (i.e., too much to drink that night) into a permanent problem,” says Jerome Hoeksema, MD, assistant professor of urology at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “The more they worry about it, the worse it gets. Young men need to recognize this cycle and try to reduce the ‘stress’ surrounding sex.”
In the popular media, it’s easy to find claims of a rising “epidemic” of erectile dysfunction in young men. For example, this article argues that the rate of ED in young men has increased 1000% in the last decade alone—though, problematically, no research is cited to back it up, which makes this a very questionable claim. So what does the science say on this subject? Are erectile difficulties really rising at a dramatic rate in young guys? Let’s take a look.
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.
Many commonly used drugs can cause erectile dysfunction. Prescription medication and over-the-counter drugs can decrease libido, interfere with normal blood flow, or even cause absent seminal emission or retrograde ejaculation. In fact, 8 of the 12 most commonly prescribed medications list ED as a side effect. Medications that commonly cause ED include:
If on one hand, depression and anxiety can lead to ED, drugs commonly used for their treatment can cause ED, as well. Sexual dysfunctions are common side effects of several psychotropic drugs that can disrupt sexual health by several different mechanisms (83). In particular, ED has been reported in subjects using serotonin selective re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI), lithium and benzodiazepines (83). SSRI are associated with a broad spectrum of sexual dysfunctions, but the most commonly reported complaints are delayed ejaculation or anorgasmia and reduced sexual desire (84). Several mechanisms could be advocated including the agonist effect on serotonin receptors type 2 and the increase in PRL levels. ED is a frequent complaint as well (84,85). The relationship between the use of SSRI and ED can be secondary to loss of sexual desire but SSRI, in particular paroxetine, are also able to inhibit cholinergic receptors and nitric oxide synthase (86). In addition, it has been observed that SSRIs might down-regulate hypothalamic-pituitary-testis axis in depressed men (87).
All three of these involve specific bodily systems including the hormones, muscles, blood vessels, nervous system, and emotions. If any of these systems become compromised, it can cause ED. In the case of anxiety and stress, these things can affect the brain’s ability to send the necessary signals to trigger the desired physical response – an erection. Stress and anxiety can also contribute to an ongoing cycle of ED, as mentioned earlier.
Erectile dysfunction (ED), also known as impotence, is the inability to achieve or sustain a hard enough erection for satisfactory completion of sexual activity. Erectile dysfunction is different from other health conditions that interfere with male sexual function, such as lack of sexual desire (decreased libido) and problems with ejaculation release of the fluid from the penis (ejaculatory dysfunction) and orgasm/climax (orgasmic dysfunction), and penile curvature (Peyronie's disease), although these problems may also be present. ED affects about 50% of men age 40 and over. This article focuses on the evaluation and treatment of erectile dysfunction.
“Sex often feels different for your partner when you experience ED,” warns Dr. Schwarts. “Men may not notice gradual changes to the girth or angle of his erection. But his partner does.” If you or your partner notice a persistent change in your erections that affects your sexual intimacy, you may have erectile dysfunction—even if you’re still able to get an erection.
Many men who suffer from erectile dysfunction feel guilty about being unable to please their partner. If the problem persists, the guilt becomes more than just a side effect – it can contribute to the ongoing cycle of ED as well. Guilt is often paired with low self-esteem, and not just in men with erectile dysfunction. Guilt and shame are feelings that are commonly linked to mental health issues such as depression. In fact, feelings of worthlessness and inappropriate guilt is one of the clinical criteria for major depressive disorder, according to the DSM-5.
In fact, one common reason many younger men visit their doctor is to get erectile dysfunction medication. Often, men with erectile dysfunction suffer with diabetes or heart disease, or may be sedentary or obese, but they don’t realize the impact of these health conditions on sexual function. Along with erectile dysfunction treatment, the doctor may recommend managing the illness, being more physically active, or losing weight.
Erectile Dysfunction is typically caused by a problem with blood flow in the penis due to the hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels of the penis. This occurs most commonly due to aging itself, which causes the smooth muscle cells that line the blood vessels to become stiffer and less able to stretch. This prevents the flow of blood that the penis requires to become erect.
The penis contains three cylinders, the two corpora cavernosa, which are on the top of the penis (see figure 1 below). These two cylinders are involved in erections. The third cylinder contains the urethra, the tube that the urine and ejaculate passes through, runs along the underside of the penis. The corpus spongiosum surrounds the urethra. Spongy tissue that has muscles, fibrous tissues, veins, and arteries within it makes up the corpora cavernosa. The inside of the corpora cavernosa is like a sponge, with potential spaces that can fill with blood and distend (known as sinusoids). A layer of tissue that is like Saran Wrap, called the tunica albuginea, surrounds the corpora. Veins located just under the tunica albuginea drain blood out of the penis.
Excess alcohol causes erectile dysfunction in a variety of ways. Have one too many, and it decreases the production of NO in your penis, decreasing blood flow. It can even prevent the prescription pills from working. A little alcohol may get you aroused, but a lot actually blunts desire in your brain and can make it hard to reach climax as well. Over time excess alcohol damages the nerves to the penis that trigger an erection, and eventually, when the liver gets damaged, testosterone levels plummet. If you drink, practice moderation.
Other medical therapies under evaluation include ROCK inhibitors and soluble guanyl cyclase activators. Melanocortin receptor agonists are a new set of medications being developed in the field of erectile dysfunction. Their action is on the nervous system rather than the vascular system. PT-141 is a nasal preparation that appears to be effective alone or in combination with PDE5 inhibitors. The main side effects include flushing and nausea. These drugs are currently not approved for commercial use.
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your ED may well have a psychological link. To confirm this diagnosis, you may want to complete a full psychological evaluation. This is particularly important if you suspect that your ED has something to do with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression that might require additional treatment, either medical or psychosocial.
Illegal drugs don’t just affect and suppress the central nervous system. They cause serious damage to blood vessels. And any damage to blood vessels or normal blood flow will eventually cause erectile dysfunction. Some experts even argue that a single use of any of these chemicals can lead to subsequent ED. Chronic use raises the risk even more. If you have a substance addiction speak to your physician. There’s always help available.
Cardiovascular diseases: The most common cause of cardiovascular diseases in the United States is atherosclerosis, the narrowing and hardening of arteries that reduces blood flow. Atherosclerosis (a type of vascular disease) typically affects arteries throughout the body; hypertension, high blood cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, and diabetes mellitus aggravate atherosclerosis. Hardening of the arteries to the penis and pelvic organs, atherosclerosis, causes insufficient blood flow into the penis. There is a close correlation between the severity of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries and erectile dysfunction. For example, men with more severe coronary artery atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries in the heart) also tend to have more erectile dysfunction than men with mild or no coronary artery atherosclerosis. Some doctors suggest that men with new onset erectile dysfunction undergo evaluation for silent coronary artery diseases (advanced coronary artery atherosclerosis that has not yet caused angina or heart attacks).

Diabetes is known to sabotage two body parts that provide essential components of an erection: nerves and blood vessels. Studies suggest that diabetic nerve damage (neuropathy) is the most important risk factor for ED in people with diabetes. If pelvic nerves that trigger penis muscles to relax are impaired, there may be a break in the chain between brain and penis, disrupting erection. Some researchers suspect that an inadequate supply of oxygen to the nerves causes this damage.
These are among the most challenging patients seen in urology practice today: a young, healthy man with neither systemic disease nor a history of trauma, who has complaints of ED (Table 2). These men often have co-morbid diagnoses, such as anxiety, depression, or mood disorders, which make the issue of ED more complex for both the patient and the urologist (12). The psychological burden of ED in these young men is more pronounced than it might be in older men as this is the phase of life during which many men expect to be highly sexually active (4). These young men are usually technologically savvy and may have scrutinized much of the readily available information on the internet regarding ED. Often they arrive to clinic armed with an understanding of the diagnostic evaluation that may be offered to further investigate the etiology of their concerns. This makes the evaluation and treatment of these men more challenging since additional diagnostic testing is often not indicated after a thorough history and physical examination. In many cases, they may have self-diagnosed and self-treated based on the information that they obtained prior to seeing a physician. Many of these men will see multiple urologists on their quest to find a pathophysiology that they can accept, and many have unrealistic expectations of a rapid cure or a surgical cure.

Occasional difficulties in bed do not constitute ED – it is the persistent and consistent inability to maintain an erection through satisfactory intercourse. It is more common than men might think, given that they are loath to discuss it with others, often even their doctors. The condition has many causes and, as a result, affects men of all ages – though it becomes increasingly prevalent with age.

This form of therapy has a response rate of well over 70%. The sympathetic nervous system normally maintains the penis in a flaccid or non-erect state. All of the vasoactive drugs, when injected into the corpora cavernosae, inhibit or override sympathetic inhibition to encourage relaxation of the smooth muscle trabeculae. The rush of blood engorges the penile corpora cavernosae sinusoidal spaces and creates an erection.
Not enough info for you? No problem. Nerd out on all the causes of erectile dysfunction with research from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. If you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with one of these trained professionals and we’ll get you on the way to a healthier manhood.
Pornography addiction or dependence is a potential cause for ED that many men fail to consider. If you spend a great deal of time watching and masturbating to pornography, it could cause you to develop unrealistic expectations about sex or about your sexual partners. When this happens, your brain becomes “trained” to not only expect but, in a way, to need that kind of experience in order to achieve arousal and climax. Researchers have actually studied this effect and have given the condition its own name – pornography-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED).
Keep your stress level down. Stress can interfere with sexual arousal and your ability to get an erection. Exercise, meditation, and setting aside time to do the things that you enjoy can help to keep your stress levels down and lessen your risk of ED. If you’re developing symptoms of anxiety or depression, consult your doctor. They may be able to refer you to a therapist who can help you work through anything that is causing you stress.
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.
Alprostadil self-injection. With this method, you use a fine needle to inject alprostadil (Caverject Impulse, Edex) into the base or side of your penis. In some cases, medications generally used for other conditions are used for penile injections on their own or in combination. Examples include papaverine, alprostadil and phentolamine. Often these combination medications are known as bimix (if two medications are included) or trimix (if three are included).
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.
Alcohol use.  Excessive drinking of alcohol and binge drinking among young men, especially between the ages of 22 and 30, can lead to ED.  I did my share of drinking in college, and found it was difficult to perform while intoxicated.  Mild or moderate alcohol use can result in temporary impotence, and erections will return once the alcohol is out of your system.  But, when drinking becomes excessive, it is believed that alcohol acts as a sedative on the central nervous system, thus depressing the male libido and sexual desire, which in turn inhibits the brain from sending signals to the heart to pump blood to the penis.  A lack of blood flow to the penis prevents your ability to maintain or achieve an erection.
Since 1998, when sildenafil (brand name Viagra) first came on the market, oral therapy has been successfully used to treat erectile dysfunction in many men with diabetes. (Sildenafil was followed in 2003 by the drugs tadalafil [Cialis], vardenafil [Levitra] and avanafil [Stendra], which work in much the same way.) Some 50% of men with Type 1 diabetes who try the drugs report improved erections, and some 60% men with Type 2 diabetes do, too. However, that leaves a large percentage of men with diabetes and erectile dysfunction who do not respond to therapy with one of these pills. This article takes a look at what can be done to treat those men who do not respond to oral therapy.
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