The symptoms of erectile dysfunction include difficulty achieving an erection, trouble maintaining an erection, and a reduced interest in sex. Because male sexual arousal is a fairly complex process, it can sometimes be difficult to identify a specific cause. Arousal starts in the brain but it also involves the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels and can be impacted by hormones and emotions. If a problem develops with any of these things, erectile dysfunction could be the consequence.
Robbins, C. L., Schick, V., Reece. M., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S. A. Dodge, B., & Fortenberry J. D., (2011, December 1). Prevalence, frequency, and associations of masturbation with partnered sexual behaviors among US adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, 165(12), 1087–1093. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1107656
Sexual stimulation causes the release of neurotransmitters from cavernosal nerve endings and relaxation factors from endothelial cells lining the sinusoids. NOS produces NO from L-arginine, and this, in turn, produces other muscle-relaxing chemicals, such as cGMP and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which work via calcium channel and protein kinase mechanisms (see the image below). This results in the relaxation of smooth muscle in the arteries and arterioles that supply the erectile tissue, producing a dramatic increase in penile blood flow.
The mechanisms by which testosterone plays a role in erectile function are not completely understood. A study evaluating the effect of testosterone on erections in surgically castrated rabbits and control animals, in which the rabbits’ intracavernosal pressures were compared after cavernosal nerve stimulation, determined that castrated rabbits had much lower pressures after stimulation than control rabbits did. [21] Notably, the pressures increased when castrated rabbits received exogenous testosterone replacement.
Alprostadil (also known as prostaglandin E1 [PGE1]) is the prominent known smooth-muscle dilator of the corpus cavernosum. Its mechanism of action is believed to be the promotion of intracellular accumulation of cyclic adenosine monophosphate, thereby causing decreased intracellular accumulation of calcium and resulting smooth muscle relaxation. Alprostadil can be delivered to the erectile tissue either via an intraurethral suppository that is massaged and then absorbed across the corpus spongiosum of the urethra to the corpora cavernosa, or directly injected into the corpora cavernosa. When administered urethrally, doses are substantially higher than when directly injected (typical dosing is 500 mcg to 1 mg intraurethral compared with 2.5 mcg to 20 mcg intracavernosal).
When sexually stimulated there is a release of a chemical, nitric oxide (NO) in the blood vessels of the corpus cavernosum. The NO stimulates the production of a compound called cGMP, which causes relaxation of the smooth muscle in the blood vessels supplying the corpus cavernosum. PDE 5 is an enzyme that breaks down cGMP. By inhibiting the breakdown of cGMP by PDE5, these medications allow cGMP to build up in the penis. cGMP causes muscles in the corpora cavernosa of the penis to relax. When the muscle is relaxed, more blood can flow into the penis and fill the spaces in the penis. As the penis fills with blood, the veins in the penis are compressed, and this results a hard erection. When the effect on PDE5 decreases, the cGMP levels go down and the muscle in the penis contracts, causing less blood to flow into the penis and allowing the veins to open up and drain blood out of the penis.

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.


ED is a common occurrence after SCI, occurring in up to 80% of men, and results from disruption of the nerve pathways essential for erection (24,25). Different degrees of ED may occur depending on the spinal cord level of injury (LOI), extent of lesion and timing from injury. Reflexogenic erections can occur with lesions above L3 or L4 when the erectile spinal reflex arc remains intact. Psychogenic erections can occur with low lesions in the sacral and lumbar spinal cord but may not occur in complete lesions above T9 that can damage sympathetic outflow. Additionally, reflexogenic erections are not likely to occur in the spinal shock period that occurs after the initial cord trauma. Conversely, their occurrence may signal that the period of shock is over (26). Typically SCI affects younger men in their “sexual prime” and ED is associated with decreased quality of life (27).

Erectile dysfunction or disorder (ED) is the inability to develop and maintain an erection for satisfactory sexual intercourse or activity. Erectile dysfunction or erectile disorder are the preferred terms as opposed to impotence. There are no uniform criteria defining how consistent the problem has to be and for what duration it must be present to considered ED. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder-5 specifies a duration of at least 6 months in its definition of ED.1
Supplements are popular and often cheaper than prescription drugs for ED. However, supplements have not been tested to see how well they work or if they are a safe treatment for ED. Patients should know that many over-the-counter drugs have been found on drug testing to have ‘bootlegged' PDE 5 Inhibitors as their main ingredient. The amounts of Viagra, Cialis, Levitra or Stendra that may be in these supplements is not under quality control and may differ from pill to pill. The FDA has issued consumer warnings and alerts.
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A larger national study, the National Health and Social Life Survey, looked at sexual function in men and women.4 This study surveyed 1,410 men aged 18 to 59 and also documented an increase in ED with age. Additionally, the study found a decrease in sexual desire with increasing age. Men in the oldest cohort (50 to 59) were more than 3 times as likely to experience erection problems and to report low sexual desire compared with men 18 to 29. Experience of sexual dysfunction was more likely among men in poor physical and emotional health. The study also concluded that sexual dysfunction is an important public health concern and that emotional issues are likely to contribute to the experience sexual dysfunction.
Malleable implants usually consist of paired rods, inserted surgically into each of the corpora cavernosa. The rods are stiff, and to have an erection, one bends them up and then when finished with intercourse one bends them down. They do not change in length or width. The malleable implants are the least mechanical and thus have the lowest risk of malfunction. However, also have the least "normal appearance."
Erythrocytosis has been noted in men on TRT, and should be monitored every 6–12 months depending upon the patients’ response to changes in haematocrit levels. For mild elevations, the dosage of testosterone can be decreased or the interval of using the medication can be increased. With the haematocrit greater than 50%, decisions to temporarily discontinue the medication or periodic phlebotomy may be indicated.38
Prevention of some of the causes that contribute to the development of erectile dysfunction can decrease the chances of developing the problem. For example, if a person decreases their chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, they will decrease their chances of developing erectile dysfunction. Other things like stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet (heart healthy with adequate vitamin intake), and exercising daily may reduce a person's risk.
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.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability to get and keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse. Estimates suggest that one of every 10 men will suffer from ED at some point during his lifetime. It is important to understand that in most cases, ED is a symptom of another, underlying problem. ED is not considered normal at any age, and may be associated with other problems that interfere with sexual intercourse, such as lack of desire and problems with orgasm and ejaculation.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) affects 50% of men older than 40 years, [4] exerting substantial effects on quality of life. [5] 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.
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Penile prostheses are very effective, and most patients who have a prosthesis placed are satisfied with the prosthesis. However, placement of a prosthesis causes scarring of the tissue within the corpora cavernosa, and if the prosthesis requires removal, other forms of therapy, except for the vacuum device, are often not effective. Thus, most physicians reserve placement of a prosthesis for men who have tried and failed or have contraindications to other therapies.
Alprostadil may be delivered via the urethra in the form of a pellet (MUSE) (107). This form of therapy has been trialed in SCI men with intermediate success (108). Bodner trialed MUSE dose escalation in SCI men and found 1,000 μg to be the most effective dose. Several men had hypotension when a constriction ring was not used in conjunction with the MUSE therapy.
Vascular damage may result from radiation therapy to the pelvis and prostate in the treatment of prostate cancer. [36] Both the blood vessels and the nerves to the penis may be affected. Radiation damage to the crura of the penis, which are highly susceptible to radiation damage, can induce ED. Data indicate that 50% of men undergoing radiation therapy lose erectile function within 5 years after completing therapy; fortunately, some respond to one of the PDE5 inhibitors.

Organic Impotence. Diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, and dysfunction of the pituitary gland or testes can cause impotence, as can certain medications. Other organic causes include arterial ischemia associated with atherosclerosis of the aorta and common iliac arteries, extensive pelvic surgery such as radical prostatectomy, spinal cord injury and other neurologic disorders, and a history of cigarette smoking. Because certain medications can cause impotence, it is recommended that in cases of recent impotence it be determined whether the patient has started on a new drug. The most common offenders are diuretics, antihypertensives, and vasodilators. Alcohol, which sometimes is ignored as a drug, is often a contributor to the problem of impotence.


Diabetes is a well-recognized risk factor for ED. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that the prevalence of ED was 37.5% in type 1 diabetes, 66.3% in type 2 diabetes, and 52.5% in diabetes overall—a rate approximately 3.5 times higher than that in controls. [39]  The etiology of ED in diabetic men probably involves both vascular and neurogenic mechanisms. Evidence indicates that establishing good glycemic control can minimize this risk.
Psychological Causes of ED – Between 10% and 20% of ED cases have a psychological cause. Because arousal starts in the brain, psychological issues can be a significant contributing factor to erectile dysfunction. Mental health conditions like depression or anxiety can negatively impact your libido, making it more difficult for you to become aroused.

Erectile dysfunction may be an unpleasant condition that no one really wants to talk about, failing to acknowledge it won’t make the problem go away. Your best defense against health problems like this is to learn everything you can about it so you can tackle the problem at the root. If you’re ready to stop living in embarrassment about your sexual function, become an advocate for yourself and your own health and talk to your doctor.
Surgical intervention for a number of conditions may remove anatomical structures necessary to erection, damage nerves, or impair blood supply.[8] Erectile dysfunction is a common complication of treatments for prostate cancer, including prostatectomy and destruction of the prostate by external beam radiation, although the prostate gland itself is not necessary to achieve an erection. As far as inguinal hernia surgery is concerned, in most cases, and in the absence of postoperative complications, the operative repair can lead to a recovery of the sexual life of people with preoperative sexual dysfunction, while, in most cases, it does not affect people with a preoperative normal sexual life.[13]
Obesity and metabolic syndrome can cause changes in blood pressure, body composition, and cholesterol which may lead to ED. Other conditions that may contribute to erectile dysfunction include Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Peyronie’s disease, sleep disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Taking certain medications can also increase your risk for ED.
Several treatments were promoted in the pre-PGE1, pre-prostaglandin era, including yohimbine, trazodone, testosterone, and various herbal remedies. None of these is currently recommended under the updated American Urological Association Guidelines for the Treatment of Erectile Dysfunction.15 Testosterone supplementation is only recommended for men with low testosterone levels.
Somatomotor penile innervation originates in Onuf’s nucleus in the S2-4 spinal segments. These nerves travel to the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus muscles when activated lead to contraction necessary for the rigid-erection phase. Several animal studies show that stimulation of the somatomotor pathways may also be under sympathetic control, and adrenergic stimulation may lead to contraction of these muscles during ejaculation (13,14). Somatomotor spinal reflexes may also be initiated by genital stimulation. For instance, the well-known bulbocavernosus reflex is evidence this reflex exists; however the clinical significance of its absence in the neurological assessment of ED has not been substantiated (15).
In this study, ED proceeded CVD in almost 70% of cases. Similarly, many men with ED have been found to have pre-existing CVD. A study by Vlachopoulos et al evaluated the incidence of asymptomatic CVD in 50 men with ED.22 These authors found that 19% of men with ED had asymptomatic CVD. Similarly, Mulhall and colleagues found that 20% of men presenting with ED and vascular insufficiency on penile duplex had asymptomatic CVD.23
The other 5 percent of prostheses are either pump devices in which the saline is permanently in the prosthesis, not in a separate reservoir (urologists may recommend this for men who have had multiple surgeries); or a pair of semi-rigid, malleable rods implanted in the penis, which render it hard at all times. The patient manually shifts the penis into an erect position for sex.
Usually there will not be a specific treatment that will lead to the improvement of erectile dysfunction. However, there are treatments that will allow erections to happen and can be used to allow sexual activity to take place. There are three main types of treatments: non-invasive treatments such as tablet medicines and external devices (e.g. vacuum device); penile injections; or for men who have not had success with other treatments, surgery may be an option.
When stimulated by the nerves, the spongy tissue arranges itself in such a way that more blood can be stored in the penis. The veins running through the outer sheath of the penis then compress which stops the blood from leaving the penis. As the blood is stopped from flowing out, the penis fills with blood and stretches within the outer casing, giving an erection.
Alprostadil, a drug also discussed in Penile Injection Therapy, has been formulated into a small suppository. This applicator is inserted into the urethra (the canal through which urine and semen are excreted), and with compression of the applicator, the small suppository is released into the urethra. With massage/rubbing of the penis, the suppository dissolves in the urethra and the medication is absorbed into the penis where it acts to increase blood flow into the penis. One cannot use any form of lubricant (for example, K-Y jelly, Vaseline, etc) to help with the insertion of the suppository. Urinating prior to inserting the applicator will help moisten/lubricate the urethra.
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Diabetes mellitus: Erectile dysfunction tends to develop 10 to 15 years earlier in diabetic men than among nondiabetic men. The increased risk of erectile dysfunction among men with diabetes mellitus may be due to the earlier onset and greater severity of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) that narrows the arteries and thereby reduces the delivery of blood to the penis. Atherosclerosis can affect the arteries in the penis, as well as the arteries in the pelvis that supply the penile arteries. Diabetes mellitus also causes erectile dysfunction by damaging nerves that go to the penis, much like the effect of diabetes on nerves in other areas of the body (diabetic neuropathy). Diabetes can also affect the muscles in the penis, leading to troubles with erections. Smoking cigarettes, obesity, poor control of blood glucose levels, and having diabetes mellitus for a long time further increase the risk of erectile dysfunction in people with diabetes.
Ultimately, PDE5i have had a significant impact on the treatment of ED in men with SCI. The ease of use and tolerability of the medication has also led to improved satisfaction and quality of life that had been previously affected by SD. Head to head trials evaluating specific PDE5i within the SCI population are required to further elucidate drug preference. PDE5i should be considered first line therapy, however men with high thoracic and cervical lesions should be warned about an increased chance of dizziness with sildenafil and possibly other PDE5i use.

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.

Some self-administered measures may be useful in the primary care setting to screen for and evaluate the degree of ED.12 The most commonly used instrument is the International Index of Erectile Function, a 15-item questionnaire that has been validated in many populations and is considered the gold standard to evaluate patients for ED.13 The Sexual Health Inventory for Men is a short-form, 5-item questionnaire developed to monitor treatment progress.12 It is important to recognize that short-form questionnaire does not evaluate specific areas of the sexual cycle, such as sexual desire, ejaculation, and orgasm; however, it may be useful in discussing ED with patients and evaluating treatment results over time.


A larger national study, the National Health and Social Life Survey, looked at sexual function in men and women.4 This study surveyed 1,410 men aged 18 to 59 and also documented an increase in ED with age. Additionally, the study found a decrease in sexual desire with increasing age. Men in the oldest cohort (50 to 59) were more than 3 times as likely to experience erection problems and to report low sexual desire compared with men 18 to 29. Experience of sexual dysfunction was more likely among men in poor physical and emotional health. The study also concluded that sexual dysfunction is an important public health concern and that emotional issues are likely to contribute to the experience sexual dysfunction.

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.
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