Similar to the general population (58), in subjects consulting for sexual dysfunction, T deficiency is progressively more prevalent as a function of age (50). In a series of 4,890 subjects consulting our Sexual Medicine and Andrology Unit for sexual dysfunction, one in five (19.6%) and one in three (29.4%) patients have total T below 10.4 and 12 nmol/L, respectively (60). Clinical correlates of T deficiency show different figures according to patient’s age. In fact, we previously demonstrated that in the youngest quartile (17–42 years old), but not in the oldest one (62–88 years old), severity of reported ED and penile blood flow impairment (dynamic peak systolic velocity) were not associated to decreasing testosterone levels (50). It is possible to speculate that, in young individuals, intercourse-related penile erection is such a complex phenomenon that other determinants (i.e., intrapsychic or relational) might mask its androgen regulation and that T deficiency produces greater sexual disturbances in subjects with greater frailty, such as older individuals. However, reported frequency of spontaneous erection and sexual thoughts were significantly decreased as a function of T decline even in younger subjects (50). Moreover, in young individuals low T was associated with a worse metabolic profile, including hypertriglyceridemia and increased waist circumference (50). Accordingly, the prevalence of MetS in the youngest quartile was clearly associated with T deficiency, as it was in the older quartiles (50). Therefore, T deficiency must be accurately verified in all subjects consulting for sexual dysfunction, even in the youngest ones.
Cardiovascular diseases account for nearly half of all cases of erectile dysfunction in men older than 50 years. Cardiovascular causes include those that affect arteries and veins. Damage to arteries that bring blood flow into the penis may occur from hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) or trauma to the pelvis/perineum (for example, pelvic fracture, long-distance bicycle riding).
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.
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.
The recommended starting dose of vardenafil is 10 mg taken orally approximately one hour before sexual activity. A doctor may adjust the dose higher or lower depending on efficacy and side effects. The maximum recommended dose is 20 mg, and the maximum recommended dosing frequency is no more than once per day. Patients can take vardenafil with or without food. As with sildenafil, for vardenafil to be effective, sexual stimulation must occur.
People sometimes refer to ED as "impotence," although the two aren't really the same condition. ED is the physical inability to develop or maintain an erection that is rigid enough for sex. Impotence is a broader term. While one cause of it is ED, impotence may also involve a lack of sexual desire, an inability to ejaculate, or problems with orgasm.
Mental causes of sexual dysfunction include: depression, stress, anxiety and insomnia. When one of these conditions leads to ED, usually once the condition is cured normal sexual behavior returns. If you believe you have one of these conditions, see your doctor for an evaluation before beginning any treatment. One side effect of antidepressants is erectile dysfunction.
Sildenafil is available as oral tablets at doses of 25 mg, 50 mg, and 100 mg. Patients should take sildenafil approximately one hour before sexual activity. In some men, the onset of action of the drug may be as early as 11-20 minutes. It's best for men to take sildenafil on an empty stomach for best results since absorption and effectiveness of sildenafil can be diminished if it is taken shortly after a meal, particularly a meal that is high in fat. Sildenafil and the other PDE5 inhibitors don't cause an immediate erection. Sexual stimulation is necessary for these medications to work.
Diabetes is an example of an endocrine disease that can cause a person to experience impotence. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to utilize the hormone insulin. One of the side effects associated with chronic diabetes is nerve damage. This affects penis sensations. Other complications associated with diabetes are impaired blood flow and hormone levels. Both of these factors can contribute to impotence.
The article, "Inactivation of phosphorylated endothelial nitric oxide synthase (Ser-1177) by O-GlcNAc in diabetes-associated erectile dysfunction," appears in the Aug. 16 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was published online Aug. 5. Melissa F. Kramer and Robyn E. Becker, also of the Brady Urological Institute, collaborated on this study.
“I’d like to say that men are regularly screened for ED, but when it comes to busy doctors taking care of patients with diabetes, sexual function tends to fall lower on the list of complications,” said Stan Honig, MD, Director of Men’s Health, Yale School of Medicine. “I’d like to think that every doctor asks every man about sexual function, but I don’t think that’s the case.”
Quitting smoking, exercising regularly, losing excess weight, curtailing excessive alcohol consumption, controlling hypertension, and optimizing blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes are not only important for maintaining good health but also may improve or even prevent progression of erectile dysfunction. It is unclear if such lifestyle changes can reverse erectile dysfunction. However, lifestyle improvements may prevent progression of the erectile dysfunction. Some studies suggest that men who have made lifestyle improvements experience increased rates of success with oral medications.
Care for these patients, who in many cases are emotional, demanding, and time consuming, may evoke feelings of frustration and anticipatory anxiety in the time-strapped urologist. Early in the encounter, the urologist must understand the patient’s psychosocial environment and establish a rapport and meaningful alliance with the patient and his family, if present (13). It is important to ensure that the doctor-patient interaction is informative and task oriented for greater patient buy-in and compliance with treatment (13,14). Affirm to the patient that regardless of the short time allotted for the visit that the doctor-patient relationship will endure even after the visit. This may be accomplished through a scheduled follow-up telephone call, electronic message, follow-up clinic visit, or a written letter. It may also be beneficial to refer the patient to a sex therapist or counselor though many young men will reject the idea that there is a psychosocial element to their ED and may refuse to consider therapy.
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 sexually competent male must have a series of events occur and multiple mechanisms intact for normal erectile function. He must 1) have desire for his sexual partner (libido), 2) be able to divert blood from the iliac artery into the corpora cavernosae to achieve penile tumescence and rigidity (erection) adequate for penetration, 3) discharge sperm and prostatic/seminal fluid through his urethra (ejaculation), and 4) experience a sense of pleasure (orgasm). A man is considered to have ED if he cannot achieve or sustain an erection of sufficient rigidity for sexual intercourse. Most men, at one time or another during their life, experience periodic or isolated sexual failures. However, the term “impotent” is reserved for those men who experience erectile failure during attempted intercourse more than 75% of the time.
The association between psychiatric conditions and sexual dysfunctions, including ED, is well known. Data from population-based studies demonstrate a cross-sectional association between depressive symptoms and ED (65-68) and, among men seeking medical care for ED, depression is significantly associated with a greater severity of the impairment in erectile function (69,70). A meta-analysis of the available prospective studies has shown the role of depression as a significant risk factor for development of ED (71). However, the relationship seems to be bidirectional, as also ED has been associated with the occurrence of depression (72). In addition, treatment with PDE5i is related with an improvement in depressive symptoms (72). Most of this evidence comes from studies not specifically designed for the assessment of this relationship in younger men. However, few studies available in younger populations seem to confirm these results. In an internet-based survey, involving more than 800 North American medical students with a mean age of 25.7 years, ED was reported by 13% of them and it showed a significant association with depressive symptoms, whose frequency got higher as a function of ED severity (73). In a population of more than 2,500 very young Swiss men, aged 18–25 years, participating to a survey on sexual function while attending the medical screening for the evaluation of military capability, ED had a prevalence of 30%. Among the possible correlated conditions, mental health showed an independent association, besides the use of medications without medical prescription, a shorter sexual lifespan and impaired physical health (74). The results from this Swiss study were then prospectively extended on a sample of 3,700 men evaluated at baseline and 15.5 months later (75). Among a number of different possible predictors, including life-style, drug abuse, perceived physical fitness and BMI, only perceived impairment in mental health and depression, either newly occurred or continuously present, were associated with both persistence and development of ED (75). In a retrospective population-based study from Finland, involving almost 3,500 men aged 18–48 years, the role of depression as a significant predictor for ED was confirmed, but this study also showed that anxiety plays a significant role and that ED is significantly less frequent in men with a longer lasting sexual life, thus underlining the positive role of sexual experience and self-confidence (76). Anxiety is often involved in the pathogenesis of ED at the beginning of sexual life. In fact, anxiety can lead to an excessive focus on quality of erection, thus providing a cognitive distraction that negatively affects the arousal and consequently the erection itself (77-79). On the other hand, anxiety can result from one or more sexual failures, with loss of sexual confidence, increasing fears and avoidance for sexual experiences that, in the end, lead to an increased probability of new failures, thus creating a vicious circle (77). Cognitive distraction could be also provided by excessive worry for physical, and in particular genital, self-image. In fact, it has been proposed that when most mental energy is focused on monitoring body, psychological resources are distracted from sex, resulting in an impaired functioning (80,81). In line with this cognitive explanation, a recent study conducted on 367 military personnel younger than 40 years showed that a deteriorated genital self-image is associated with sexual anxiety which, in turn, is associated with a higher probability of sexual dysfunction (82).
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.
The bottom line is that nearly all men with diabetes who wish to have an erection adequate for sexual intercourse can do so with the therapies currently available. And with commitment and communication, the experience of erectile dysfunction can be changed from a potential personal tragedy to an opportunity for greater emotional intimacy in a couple.
After a full history and physical examination, the urologist likely has a perception of the etiology of the problem. Additional laboratory evaluations may be necessary to evaluate for specific types of organic disease. These tests might include serum chemistry, complete blood count, lipid profile, thyroid stimulation hormone/free thyroxine, and early morning serum testosterone to assess for metabolic abnormalities, such as diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, renal dysfunction, thyroid disease, and hypogonadism (16). These are not mandatory components of the assessment in a patient with hypertonic cavernous smooth muscle as the source of ED.
For patients who have ED related to hypertonic cavernous smooth muscle and excessive sympathetic discharge, we recommend a trial of a low-dose alpha adrenergic blocker, such as terazosin 1 mg PO at bedtime nightly. We typically increase the dosage as needed every 2–3 weeks for 3–5 months until the patient experiences improvement of the erection or we determine that treatment is ineffective. We explain the potential side effects of orthostasis, dizziness, and retrograde ejaculation in detail. We also take great care and time in explaining to the patient, and his family/partner if present, the pathophysiologic mechanism of their erectile dysfunction and the biological basis of the treatment plan. This detailed discussion helps to engage the patient in the treatment plan and provides encouragement regarding the potential for response to treatment and recovery. During these encounters, we utilize teaching tools, such as diagrams, drawings, printed handouts, and other visual aids to ensure that the discussion is patient-focused and patient-friendly. Patient education is critical to exploring treatment options and developing confidence in our ability to treat the ED, and their own ability to overcome and eventually resolve the problem of ED.
Neelima V. Chu, MD, is an endocrinology fellow in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of California, San Diego. Steven V. Edelman, MD, is an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of California, San Diego, and the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the San Diego VA Health Care Systems in San Diego. He is founder and director of Taking Control of Your Diabetes, a nonprofit organization, and an associate editor of Clinical Diabetes.
Talk with your doctor about going to a counselor if psychological or emotional issues are affecting your ED. A counselor can teach you how to lower your anxiety or stress related to sex. Your counselor may suggest that you bring your partner to counseling sessions to learn how to support you. As you work on relieving your anxiety or stress, a doctor can focus on treating the physical causes of ED.
Aging: There are two reasons why older men are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction than younger men. First, older men are more likely to develop diseases (such as heart attacks, angina, cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure) that are associated with erectile dysfunction. Second, the aging process alone can cause erectile dysfunction in some men by causing changes in the muscle and tissue within the penis.
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.
What’s good for the soul (cycle) may not be good for your member. The research is somewhat controversial, but the link between cycling and ED is getting stronger. In fact, anything that places pressure on the pudendal artery can result in penile numbness and impotence. For those of you who don’t remember these from anatomy class, this is the area commonly referred to as the “undercarriage.”
An alprostadil cream that patients apply into the tip of the penis (the urethral meatus, the opening that urine passes through) is currently available in the UK and Europe. It is currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). After application of the cream, an erection occurs within five to 30 minutes, and the erection lasts one to two hours in men who respond to the cream. Doctors recommend that one use the cream for a maximum frequency of two to three times per week and no more frequent than once every 24 hours. It has essentially the same contraindications and side effects as the other formulations of alprostadil. The cream may cause vaginal burning in roughly 4% of partners. Men should not use alprostadil cream for sexual intercourse with women of childbearing potential unless a condom is used. Researchers have performed controlled trial studies to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of this drug. Overall, 52% of men reported improvement in their erections compared to 20% of men receiving placebo. A later analysis demonstrated that 36% of men using the alprostadil cream had a clinically relevant improvement in vaginal penetration ability and 31% clinically relevant improvement in ability to have successful intercourse to ejaculation.
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.
Once you have talked to your partner about your issues, you may want to consider taking things one step further with psychosexual therapy. This is a form of therapy in which both you and your partner see a therapist together. The therapist will help you and your partner break out of the cycle of stress and disappointment that has been coloring your sex life and contributing to your ED. Going to a therapist with your partner may also help you work out any relationship issues that have been affecting your sex life so the both of you will be more satisfied.