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Martha K Terris, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Cancer Society, American College of Surgeons, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Urological Association, Association of Women Surgeons, New York Academy of Sciences, Society of Government Service Urologists, Society of University Urologists, Society of Urology Chairpersons and Program Directors, and Society of Women in Urology
When a man becomes sexually excited, muscles in their penis relax. This relaxation allows for increased blood flow through the penile arteries. This blood fills two chambers inside the penis called the corpora cavernosa. As the chambers fill with blood, the penis grows rigid. Erection ends when the muscles contract and the accumulated blood can flow out through the penile veins.
Treatments include psychotherapy, adopting a healthy lifestyle, oral phosphodiesterase type V (PDE5) inhibitors (Viagra, Levitra, Cialis, Stendra, and Staxyn), intraurethral prostaglandin E1 (MUSE), intracavernosal injections (prostaglandin E1 [Caverject, Edex], Bimix and Trimix), vacuum devices, penile prosthesis and vascular surgery, and (in some cases) changes in medications when appropriate.
The information shared on our websites is information developed solely from internal experts on the subject matter, including medical advisory boards, who have developed guidelines for our patient content. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.
Occasional successful sexual function and early morning erections do not preclude the possibility of endocrine dysfunction. Since abnormally low levels of testosterone frequently are the primary cause of impotence, it is recommended that determination of the blood level of testosterone be an integral part of the total evaluation of the impotent patient.
Sildenafil (Viagra) was the first oral phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor approved by the FDA in the United States for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (it is not approved for women). Sildenafil inhibits PDE5, which is an enzyme that destroys cGMP. By inhibiting the destruction of cGMP by PDE5, sildenafil allows cGMP to accumulate. The cGMP in turn prolongs relaxation of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. Relaxation of the corpora cavernosa smooth muscle allows blood to flow into the penis resulting in increased engorgement of the penis. In short, sildenafil increases blood flow into the penis and decreases blood flow out of the penis.

The causes of erectile dysfunction include aging, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, cigarette smoking, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), depression, nerve or spinal cord damage, medication side effects, alcoholism or other substance (drug) abuse, pelvic surgery including radical prostatectomy, pelvic radiation, penile/perineal/pelvic trauma such as pelvic fracture, Peyronie's disease (a disorder that causes curvature of the penis and sometimes painful erections), and low testosterone levels.
Having erection trouble from time to time isn't necessarily a cause for concern. If erectile dysfunction is an ongoing issue, however, it can cause stress, affect your self-confidence and contribute to relationship problems. Problems getting or keeping an erection can also be a sign of an underlying health condition that needs treatment and a risk factor for heart disease.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause. In general, exercise, particularly of the aerobic type, is effective for preventing ED during midlife. Exercise as a treatment is under investigation.[22]:6, 18–19 For tobacco smokers, cessation often results in a significant improvement.[23] Oral pharmacotherapy and vacuum erection devices are first-line treatments,[22]:20, 24 followed by injections of drugs into the penis, as well as penile implants.[22]:25–26 Vascular reconstructive surgeries are beneficial in certain groups.[24]
PD is a chronic neurodegenerative disease characterized by “motor” and “non-motor” symptoms that lead to progressive disability. Erectile and SD are “non-motor” symptoms and can occur in 50–69% of males with PD (39-42). Ejaculatory and orgasmic function are also impaired. PD affects the dopaminergic pathways leading to erection and arousal. Dopaminergic therapy for PD can improve ED, and sometimes therapy may lead to hypersexuality (43,44). A comparison of married men with PD to age matched controls with non-neurologic chronic disease such as arthritis did not show any discrepancy in ED rates (45). This suggests that ED in certain groups with PD may occur from disease related factors common in chronic illness, in general.

Penile erection is managed by two mechanisms: the reflex erection, which is achieved by directly touching the penile shaft, and the psychogenic erection, which is achieved by erotic or emotional stimuli. The former uses the peripheral nerves and the lower parts of the spinal cord, whereas the latter uses the limbic system of the brain. In both cases, an intact neural system is required for a successful and complete erection. Stimulation of the penile shaft by the nervous system leads to the secretion of nitric oxide (NO), which causes the relaxation of smooth muscles of corpora cavernosa (the main erectile tissue of penis), and subsequently penile erection. Additionally, adequate levels of testosterone (produced by the testes) and an intact pituitary gland are required for the development of a healthy erectile system. As can be understood from the mechanisms of a normal erection, impotence may develop due to hormonal deficiency, disorders of the neural system, lack of adequate penile blood supply or psychological problems.[18] Spinal cord injury causes sexual dysfunction including ED. Restriction of blood flow can arise from impaired endothelial function due to the usual causes associated with coronary artery disease, but can also be caused by prolonged exposure to bright light.
A physical exam checks your total health. Examination focusing on your genitals (penis and testicles) is often done to check for ED. Based on your age and risk factors, the exam may also focus on your heart and blood system: heart, peripheral pulses and blood pressure. Based on your age and family history your doctor may do a rectal exam to check the prostate. These tests are not painful. Most patients do not need a lot of testing before starting treatment.
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