Erectile dysfunction (ED) is one of the most common conditions affecting middle-aged and older men. Nearly every primary care physician, internist and geriatrician will be called upon to manage this condition or to make referrals to urologists, endocrinologists and cardiologists who will assist in the treatment of ED. This article will briefly discuss the diagnosis and management of ED. In addition, emerging concepts in ED management will be discussed, such as the use of testosterone to treat ED, the role of the endothelium in men with ED and treating the partner of the man with ED. Finally, future potential therapies for ED will be discussed.
Impotence, also known as erectile dysfunction or ED, is a very common problem, affecting up to half of 40-70 year old men in Australia.Treatment techniques for impotence have varied through the years, from external steel mechanical attachments, to static electricity attached to the penis and testicles, to simple aphrodisiacs such as oysters. Until as recently as 1970, erectile failure was almost always seen as being due to psychological causes and was usually treated with psychotherapy.Since then, the medical causes contributing to impotence have been recognised and the treatment of impotence has been revolutionised, providing a range of options which are far more acceptable and very much more successful.Treatment options for impotenceTreatment choices for erectile dysfunction include:medicines;self-injection therapy;devices such as vacuum pumps;penile implant surgery;hormone therapy; andcounselling.If you have erectile dysfunction, the treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the severity of symptoms and the underlying cause of your impotence.Your doctor will want to check that any conditions that could be contributing to or causing erectile dysfunction are being treated.Your doctor may also suggest that you make some lifestyle adjustments, such as:increasing the amount of physical activity you get;losing weight if you are overweight;reducing the amount of alcohol you drink;quitting smoking; andnot taking illicit drugs.These lifestyle recommendations can help improve impotence related to several causes and improve your health in general.Medicines for erectile dysfunctionThe first tablet available for erectile dysfunction, sildenafil (brand name Viagra), has been largely responsible for helping to bring the topic of erectile dysfunction out into the open. Similar medications — tadalafil (Cialis) and vardenafil ( Levitra) — are also available. These medicines all work in a similar way, although there is some difference in how long their effect lasts. Sildenafil, tadalafil and vardenafil belong to a group of medicines called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors because they block the PDE5 enzyme.How do oral medicines help treat erectile dysfunction?PDE5 inhibitors help in the process of getting and keeping an erection by working on chemicals in the body that are involved in erections. These medicines work by stopping PDE5 from breaking down an erection-producing chemical called cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP). cGMP helps to relax the smooth muscle cells in the penis's erectile tissue, allowing more blood to flow into the penis to cause an erection. When PDE5 is temporarily blocked by these medicines, it can’t break down the erection producing cGMP, so an erection can be achieved and maintained. PDE5 inhibitors can be used in the treatment of erectile dysfunction that is due to physical or psychological causes.Medications such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra will work only if you are sexually stimulated. They are not aphrodisiacs and won’t increase your sex drive.Side effects of PDE5 inhibitorsSide effects of these medicines can include headaches, flushes, blocked nose, indigestion and dizziness.In rare situations, sildenafil and vardenafil can cause a distortion of vision or change in colour vision.Tadalafil has been associated with back pain.Who can take medicines for impotence?PDE5 inhibitors cannot be taken by all men, so your doctor will need to evaluate your suitability before prescribing either of these medications.Men taking nitrates (often used to treat angina) should never take phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors. PDE5 inhibitors should also not be taken with some medicines used to treat high blood pressure.PDE5 inhibitors may also not be suitable for men with certain heart conditions or low blood pressure. Check with your doctor to find out if this type of medication may be suitable for you.Self-injection therapySelf-injection therapy delivers a medicine called alprostadil (brand name Caverject), also known as prostaglandin E-1, to the erectile tissue of the penis. Prostaglandin E-1 occurs naturally in the body and helps increase the blood flow to the penis to cause an erection. Unlike the PDE5 inhibitors, alprostadil will cause an erection whether the penis is stimulated or not.Self-injection therapy is usually recommended if PDE5 inhibitor medicines are not suitable or have not been effective in the treatment of erectile dysfunction.How to use self-injection therapyAlprostadil is injected into either of the 2 cigar-shaped chambers of the penis known as the corpora cavernosa, which run along the length of the penis, one on either side. Your doctor or urologist (specialist in problems with male reproductive organs and the urinary tract) will give you instructions on how to do this.Alprostadil should produce an erection in 5 to 20 minutes and, generally, the erection will last for 30 to 60 minutes.You should not use alprostadil more than once in a 24-hour period, and you should use it no more than 3 times a week.Don’t try to use more than the recommended dose of alprostadil, as your erection may last longer than is medically safe.Who can use self-injection therapy?You should ask your doctor if alprostadil is suitable for you. Your doctor will also be able to tell you how much alprostadil to use, depending on your condition and whether or not you are taking any other medications, and also how to use alprostadil properly.People with certain illnesses, such as leukaemia and sickle cell anaemia, or who have a penile implant or Peyronie’s disease, where the penis may be scarred and produces erections that are not straight, should not use alprostadil.Men for whom sexual activity is not advised should not use alprostadil.Side effects of injection therapyThe most common side effects of alprostadil include pain in the penis or bruising in the penis at the site of injection. Fibrosis (the development of fibrous tissue) can also develop following injections into the penis.The most serious side effect is priapism (a persistent erection), which is a medical emergency. Your doctor will inform you of what to do if you have an erection that persists for 2 hours or more. It is very important that you follow your doctor’s instructions and inform them that you have experienced this side effect.Vacuum erection devicesVacuum erection devices work by creating a vacuum, which increases blood flow to the penis, producing an erection.The penis is lubricated and placed inside a hollow plastic chamber. Air is pumped out of the chamber, either manually or by a battery powered pump. This creates a vacuum which pulls blood into the penis to cause an erection. This takes about 5 minutes.Once the penis is erect, the man fits a rubber ring around the base of his penis to keep the blood trapped inside the penis when the cylinder is removed. After intercourse, the ring can be removed to return the penis to a limp state.Vacuum erection devices avoid surgery and can be used as often as required. However, they may be difficult to use, and many men and their partners feel they take much of the pleasure and spontaneity away from sexual activities. Vacuum pumps are not suitable for men who have problems with blood clotting, or blood disorders such as leukaemia.Penile implant surgery for impotencePenile implant surgery is not a common procedure but in some cases it may be the most appropriate treatment for erectile dysfunction.The procedure involves placing an implant inside the penis, along its length, so that it can become erect. The implant may be a pair of semi-rigid rods or a pair of inflatable cylinders.The inflatable implants allow the penis to look and feel limp (flaccid) or erect, depending on how much the cylinders are inflated. The cylinders in an inflatable implant are hollow, and the man gets an erection by squeezing a pump located in his scrotum to fill the cylinders with salt water (saline) stored in a reservoir implanted in his lower abdomen. A release valve drains the saline out of the cylinders and back into the reservoir.With the semi-rigid, malleable rod type of implant, the rods run along the length of the penis and can be bent upwards to produce an erect penis, or downwards when an erect penis is not required.Like all surgery, there are some risks, such as infection or bleeding. If you have had surgery and have severe pain, fever, swelling or excessive bleeding, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.Vascular surgery for erectile dysfunctionIn cases where a man’s anatomy prevents blood flow into or out of the penis, vascular surgery may be an option. This treatment option is rarely recommended, and is usually only successful in younger men.If there is a blockage that prevents blood from flowing into the penis, a doctor may recommend an operation that bypasses the blocked blood vessels, using a length of vein or manufactured tubing, to allow more blood to flow into the penis and help produce an erection.If the problem is that blood leaks back out of the penis, this can be corrected by tying off the major veins that drain the penis, a procedure known as venous ligation.Hormone treatments for impotenceIn a small number of men, blood tests may show abnormally low levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone. In such cases your doctor might prescribe a course of testosterone injections or a testosterone implant. The supplements can help boost sex drive as well as increasing the ability to have erections. Testosterone gel or patches, applied daily to the skin, are another option.Complementary medicines for erectile dysfunctionThere is a lack of scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of complementary therapies for the treatment of impotence.Always check with your doctor before taking any herbal medicines or supplements for impotence. These formulations may contain ingredients that can interact with other medicines or cause dangerous side effects.Counselling for men with impotenceErectile dysfunction often has physical causes, but sometimes there is a psychological basis for erection problems. Often this is a form of performance anxiety. A man may have had an episode of erectile dysfunction due to some passing cause like fatigue, stress, relationship difficulty or intoxication. This may have led to embarrassment or a feeling of failure. Even if the physical cause does not remain, future attempts to have sex may trigger memories of this embarrassment and acute anxiety that it will happen again. This anxiety itself is capable of causing erectile dysfunction, and so a man may get trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety and erectile dysfunction. In these instances, seeing a GP, counsellor or psychologist can be very helpful.Stress, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, in fact, almost all significant emotional problems, can have a major effect on sexuality. So do many chronic physical illnesses, even if they don't directly affect genital function. Counsellors and psychologists can assist with these and a wide range of other sexual and relationship problems and can also help female partners suffering from sexual problems. They are particularly skilled in helping patients to overcome guilt or anxiety relating to sexual abuse, and in helping couples to sort out relationship difficulties. Simple problems can be dealt with in a few visits, but more complex problems may require several months or even years of therapy.Your doctor may be able to recommend a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in sexual and relationship problems. Last Reviewed: 12 December 2016
ED is defined as the inability to achieve a full erection or the inability to maintain an erection adequate for sexual intimacy. Other types of sexual dysfunction such as premature ejaculation and low libido may occur; however, the most common and disruptive problem in men is ED. Although most men will experience periodic episodes of ED, these episodes tend to become more frequent with advancing age.
Using the correct size of tension ring is critical in obtaining the best possible result from this type of treatment. If the ring is too tight, it can be uncomfortable. If too large a ring is used, the erection may not last. The tension ring should not be left in place longer than 30 minutes. Leaving the ring in place for longer than 30 minutes can cause damage to the penis and further aggravate the cause of the erectile dysfunction.
A physical cause can be identified in about 80% of cases. These include cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, neurological problems such as following prostatectomy, hypogonadism, and drug side effects. Psychological impotence is where erection or penetration fails due to thoughts or feelings; this is somewhat less frequent, in the order of about 10% of cases. In psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment.
ED exists in approximately 75% of men with SB and is dependent upon the level of the neurologic lesion (54). The level of the neurologic lesions usually corresponds to sensation and penile sensation indicates pudendal nerve signaling. With absent sacral reflexes ED is variable. Furthermore, Diamond et al. reported that 64% of men with lesions below T10 obtained erections versus 14% with a lesion above T10 (55). It has also been suggested that ED may be underreported due to lack of sexual education even in men without associated cognitive impairment (56).
Other treatment options such as penile self-injection therapy, external vacuum pumps and the medicated urethral system for erection are in rare occasions an effective long-term treatment. Only 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. These treatments require extensive planning which interferes with spontaneity. This may be the reason why the refill rate is so low and the drop out of treatment so high.
Besides PDE5 inhibitors and among second-line therapies are VCDs which are clear plastic chambers placed over the penis, tightened against the lower abdomen with a mechanism to create a vacuum inside the chamber. This directs blood into the penis. If an adequate erection occurs inside the chamber, the patient slips a small constriction band off the end of the VCD and onto the base of the penis. An erection beyond 30 min is not recommended. These devices can be a bit cumbersome, but are very safe.40
There are hundreds of medications that have the side effect of ED and/or decreased libido. Examples of drugs implicated as a cause of ED include hydrochlorothiazides and beta-blocking agents. Medications used to treat depression, particularly the SSRIs such as citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac, Prozac Weekly, Sarafem), fluvoxamine (Luvox, Luvox CR), paroxetine (Paxil, Paxil CR, Pexeva) and sertraline (Zoloft), may also contribute to ED.9 Bupropion (Wellbutrin) which has a predominant effect on blocking the reuptake of dopamine is an antidepressant with lower incidence of ED.10 The side effects of 5ARIs occurring in fewer than 5% of patients can include gynaecomastia, ED, loss of libido and ejaculatory dysfunction.11
As blood flows into the penis, the corpora cavernosa swell, and this swelling compresses the veins (blood vessels that drain the blood out of the penis) against the tunica albuginea. Compression of the veins prevents blood from leaving the penis. This creates a hard erection. When the amount of cGMP decreases by the action of a chemical called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), the muscles in the penis tighten, and the blood flow into the penis decreases. With less blood coming into the penis, the veins are not compressed, allowing blood to drain out of the penis, and the erection goes down.
Palmer MR, Holt SK, Sarma AV, Dunn RL, Hotaling JM, Cleary PA, Braffett BH, Martin C, Herman WH, Jacobson AM, Wessells H; Diabetes Control and Complications Trial and Epidemiology of Diabetes Interventions and Complications Research Group. Longitudinal Patterns of Occurrence and Remission of Erectile Dysfunction in Men With Type 1 Diabetes. J Sex Med. 2017 Oct;14(10):1187-1194. Doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.07.012. Epub 2017 Aug 26.
Monitoring erections that occur during sleep (nocturnal penile tumescence) can help you and your doctor to understand if the erectile dysfunction is due to psychological or physical causes. The nocturnal penile tumescence test is a study to evaluate erections at night. Normally men have three to five erections per eight hours of sleep. The test can be performed at home or in a sleep lab. The most accurate way to perform the test involves a special device that is connected to two rings. The rings are placed around the penis, one at the tip of the penis and the other at the bottom (base) of the penis. The device records how many erections occur, how long they last, and how rigid they are. The test is limited in that it does not assess the ability to penetrate.
Counselling or sex therapy (58% of people find this works for them) –mind-related causes of erectile dysfunction can affect anyone. They are more likely if you experience erectile dysfunction at a younger age. Talking to a counsellor or therapist can help some people overcome erectile dysfunction related to these problems, possibly for good. They can also help you if your erectile dysfunction is causing you stress, as this can make matters worse.
Finally, gene therapy and stem cell research has widened the frontier of ED treatment proposed as possibility to even reverse ED. Specifically, gene therapy pertains to repairing the cause of ED by restoring defective gene function and/or altering the expression of the mutant gene (32). Most of the available data on gene therapy are in the animal model. However, a phase I clinical trial in men with ED undergoing intracavernous injection with a DNA plasmid carrying the alpha-subunit of the corporal smooth muscle Maxi-K channel showed promise in increased erectile function based on IIEF assessment sustained throughout the 3-month study period (122).
In patients who either fail to respond to first or second-line therapy, or are not interested in the conservative therapies, penile prosthesis implantation is available. Malleable and rigid implants were available for many years, but in 1973 the world of penile prosthetics took a giant leap forward with the advent of the inflatable penile implant. Most implants done nowadays are of the inflatable variety. Adverse events including malfunction and infection are rare, and patient satisfaction is very high.45
PDE5i for ED in patients with MS can be considered as reasonably effective and safe. Fowler et al. performed a randomized, multicenter, double-blind, flexible dose trial with open label extensions comparing sildenafil to placebo (75). A nearly 4-fold increase in effective erections was noted in the treatment arm, 96% vs. 24%. Sexual satisfaction and overall satisfaction were also improved in the treatment group based on IIEF scores, and quality of life assessments. Lombardi et al. evaluated tadalafil use in men with MS (71). Seventy eight percent of the men responded with improved erections, better quality of life with regards to sexual function, partner relationship and family life. Just less than half the men who responded to the tadalafil did so at the lower dosage of 10 mg. Subjects in either studies did not have any significant adverse side effects beyond flushing, and headache with PDE5i use.
The U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a list of 29 OTC products that claim to treat erectile dysfunction. Patients should avoid these because many contain harmful ingredients. Other natural or herbal remedies such as DHEA, L-arginine, ginseng, and yohimbe are supplements that have been used but have not been proven safe and effective according to some researchers. Before using such compounds, individuals should consult their doctor. According to some experts, acupuncture does not effectively treat erectile dysfunction. Other home remedies for reducing ED symptoms include diet changes such as eating blueberries and citrus fruits and drinking red wine.
Chancellor et al. (109) compared VEDs with papaverine injections in 18 males with SCI. The injections and pumps were equally effective in inducing erections and no adverse effects from the treatments were reported. Treatment arms were crossed over, subsequently seven men chose the VED and seven men chose the papavarine highlighting equal efficacy in this population. In another treatment arm topical minoxidil was applied without any effective erections achieved by the study subjects.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) affects 50% of men older than 40 years,  exerting substantial effects on quality of life.  This common problem is complex and involves multiple pathways. Penile erections are produced by an integration of physiologic processes involving the central nervous, peripheral nervous, hormonal, and vascular systems. Any abnormality in these systems, whether from medication or disease, has a significant impact on the ability to develop and sustain an erection, ejaculate, and experience orgasm.
The association between low testosterone and ED is not entirely clear. Although these 2 processes certainly overlap in some instances, they are distinct entities. Some 2-21% of men have both hypogonadism and ED; however, it is unclear to what degree treating the former will improve erectile function.  About 35-40% of men with low testosterone see an improvement in their erections with testosterone replacement; however, almost 65% of these men see no improvement. 
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.
While pills for ED are convenient, some men sustain stronger erections by injecting medication directly into the penis. Drugs approved for this purpose work by widening the blood vessels, causing the penis to become engorged with blood. Another option is inserting a medicated pellet into the urethra. The pellet can trigger an erection within 10 minutes.