Research is mixed on the effectiveness of acupuncture as an erectile dysfunction cure, but one study published in November 2013 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that acupuncture can be beneficial for men experiencing erectile dysfunction as a side effect of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
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.
Nerve or spinal cord damage: Damage to the spinal cord and nerves in the pelvis can cause erectile dysfunction. Nerve damage can be due to disease, trauma, or surgical procedures. Examples include injury to the spinal cord from automobile accidents, injury to the pelvic nerves from prostate surgery for cancer (prostatectomy), and some surgeries for colorectal cancer, radiation to the prostate, surgery for benign prostatic enlargement, multiple sclerosis (a neurological disease with the potential to cause widespread damage to nerves), and long-term diabetes mellitus.
If it is determined that ED is a problem, the patient evaluation should include a detailed sexual and medical history and a physical exam. In particular, it is important to evaluate the ED within the context of ejaculatory problems. There is a strong interplay between premature ejaculation (PE) and ED, with about a third of ED patients reporting PE. The relationship between the PE and ED is bidirectional and successful treatment of one often requires treatment of the other.14
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.
The severity of ED has been correlated with the extent of CVD. Banks et al reported that the risk of future CV events increased progressively according to ED severity.28 This was shown in both men with and without known CVD at baseline and after controlling for confounders. Solomon and colleagues found an inverse correlation between international index of erectile function (IIEF) scores and plaque burden seen on coronary angiography.29 In addition, Yaman et al demonstrated a significant correlation between ED severity on IIEF questionnaires and coronary artery calcification.30
Surgery to repair arteries (penile arterial reconstructive surgery) can reduce impotence caused by obstructions that block the flow of blood to the penis. The best candidates for such surgery are young men with discrete blockage of an artery because of a physical injury to the pubic area or a fracture of the pelvis. The procedure is less successful in older men with widespread blockage of arteries.
Unfortunately, some patients may have an overly simplified understanding of the role of PDE5 inhibitors in ED management. Such patients may not expect or be willing to undergo a long evaluation and testing process to obtain a better understanding of their sexual problem, and they may be less likely to involve their partner in discussing their sexual relationship with the physician. They may expect to obtain medications through a phone call to their doctor or even over the Internet, with minimal or no physician contact at all.
Psychosocial problems are important and may cause erectile dysfunction by themselves or together with other causes of erectile dysfunction, such as diabetes and heart disease. Relationships are complicated and many factors cause tensions, which can affect sexual relations. For some men, these problems can become ongoing and it can help to talk through the issue with a skilled counsellor. It is important to know that the longer erectile dysfunction is left untreated, the greater the effect on relationships. This is another reason why early treatment of erectile dysfunction is important.
Under normal circumstances, when a man is sexually stimulated, his brain sends a message down the spinal cord and into the nerves of the penis. The nerve endings in the penis release chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, that signal the corpora cavernosa (the two spongy rods of tissue that span the length of the penis) to relax and fill with blood. As they expand, the corpora cavernosa close off other veins that would normally drain blood from the penis. As the penis becomes engorged with blood, it enlarges and stiffens, causing an erection. Problems with blood vessels, nerves, or tissues of the penis can interfere with an erection.
ED varies in men with seizure disorders, occurring in 3% to 58% of men with epilepsy (30). The cause of ED is likely multifactorial, with neurologic, endocrine, iatrogenic, psychiatric and psychosocial factors leading to varying degrees of ED (31). ED can occur in periods surrounding active seizures (ictal) or in the periods unrelated to seizure activity (post-ictal) as well (32).
The downside to these prostheses includes the standard risks of surgery, the very low risk of infection — less than 2 percent in most patients, slightly higher in diabetics — and a slight drop in penis length versus a natural erection or other ED treatments. Also, unlike with other methods, any hope for a natural erection is abolished once a pump is implanted. The cost for surgical options varies, and insurance coverage is typically good.
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.
The sympathetic pathway originates from the 11th thoracic to the 2nd lumbar spinal segments and goes via the white rami to enter the sympathetic chain ganglia. Subsequently nerves travel through the lumbar splanchnic to inferior mesenteric and superior hypogastric nerves to the pelvic plexus. The T10 through T12 segments are most often the origin of sympathetic fibers, and the sympathetic chain ganglia that innervate the penis are located in the sacral and caudal ganglia (3).
The American Urological Association Guideline on the Management of ED states oral PDE5i are considered first line therapy for the treatment of ED, unless contraindicated (57). Sildenafil, the first oral PDE5i, was introduced in 1998 and has revolutionized ED therapy due to its broad applicability, effectiveness and safety profile. PDE5i work by preventing hydrolysis of cGMP by the PDE5 enzyme in the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. cGMP degradation typically leads to smooth muscle contraction and detumescence prevented by PDE5i administration. Two other PDE5i, vardenafil and tadalafil are other PDE5i with different pharmacokinetics, PDE receptor selectivity and side effect profiles.
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.
Yohimbine: The main component of an African tree bark, yohimbine is probably one of the most problematic of all natural remedies for ED. Some research suggests that yohimbine can improve a type of sexual dysfunction that is linked with a drug used to treat depression. However, studies have linked yohimbine to a number of side effects, which can include anxiety, increased blood pressure, and a fast, irregular heartbeat. Like all natural remedies, yohimbine should only be used after advice and under supervision from a doctor.
Since sexual arousal is a complex process involving hormones, emotions, nerves, muscles, blood vessels and the brain, a malfunction in any of these can lead to ED. Stress, exhaustion and psychological issues can also contribute, and anxiety over maintaining an erection can actually make it harder to attain. In short, any condition that inhibits blood flow to the penis can lead to ED.
Centrally active compounds such as apomorphine have been used in men with ED whose cardiovascular comorbidity may prohibit PDE5i use, or in men who have concurrent apomorphine use for its anti-parkinsonian properties. Unfortunately, its side effect profile and poor effectiveness compared to other ED treatments have impaired its mainstream utilization (118). It is suspected that the side effects of apomorphine relate to its D2 receptor affinity. D4 receptor agonists, such as ABT-724 and azulenylmethylpiperazines, may not have the same associated side effects and show potent pro-erectile effects in animal models compared to apomorphine (32,119).
The first step in treating the patient with ED is to take a thorough sexual, medical, and psychosocial history. Questionnaires are available to assist clinicians in obtaining important patient data. (See Presentation.) Successful treatment of sexual dysfunction has been demonstrated to improve sexual intimacy and satisfaction, improve sexual aspects of quality of life, improve overall quality of life, and relieve symptoms of depression. (See Treatment.)
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.
Can’t or don’t want to take ED drugs? The vacuum pump method is the next most common choice among men with erectile dysfunction who pass on pills, says Dr. Bennett. To create an erection, you place a plastic cylinder over the penis and pump the air out of the cylinder to force blood to flow into the penis. An elastic ring that you slide onto the base of your penis holds the erection. This ED treatment device is effective for about 75 percent of men. Side effects include numbness, bruising, and weak ejaculation — and the ring must be removed after 30 minutes.
The dorsal artery provides for engorgement of the glans during erection, whereas the bulbourethral artery supplies the bulb and the corpus spongiosum. The cavernous artery effects tumescence of the corpus cavernosum and thus is principally responsible for erection. The cavernous artery gives off many helicine arteries, which supply the trabecular erectile tissue and the sinusoids. These helicine arteries are contracted and tortuous in the flaccid state and become dilated and straight during erection. 
Inside the cell, NOS catalyzes the oxidation of L-arginine to NO and L-citrulline. Endogenous blockers of this pathway have been identified. The gaseous NO that is produced acts as a neurotransmitter or paracrine messenger. Its biologic half-life is only 5 seconds. NO may act within the cell or diffuse and interact with nearby target cells. In the corpora cavernosa, NO activates guanylate cyclase, which in turn increases cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP). Relaxation of vascular smooth muscles by cGMP leads to vasodilation and increased blood flow.
According to a review of all randomized controlled trials evaluating sildenafil by the American Urological Association (AUA) Consensus Panel on Erectile Dysfunction, 36% to 76% of patients receiving the drug were "able to achieve intercourse" during treatment. For tadalafil, four randomized controlled trials revealed that 11% to 47% of patients were "able to achieve intercourse." Similar efficacy has been observed with vardenafil, although studies are fewer.19 A meta-analysis published in 2013 clearly demonstrated increased efficacy over placebo for all PDE5 inhibitors.24 Head-to-head comparison suggested that tadalafil outperforms sildenafil on validated measures of erectile dysfunction, including the international index of erectile function and sexual encounter profile-2 and -3.
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.
Alteration of NO levels is the focus of several approaches to the treatment of ED. Inhibitors of phosphodiesterase, which primarily hydrolyze cGMP type 5, provided the basis for the development of the PDE5 inhibitors. Chen et al administered oral L-arginine and reported subjective improvement in 50 men with ED.  These supplements are readily available commercially. Reported adverse effects include nausea, diarrhea, headache, flushing, numbness, and hypotension.
For best results, men with ED take these pills about an hour or two before having sex. The drugs require normal nerve function to the penis. PDE5 inhibitors improve on normal erectile responses helping blood flow into the penis. Use these drugs as directed. About 7 out of 10 men do well and have better erections. Response rates are lower for Diabetics and cancer patients.