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.

The first stem cell study for the treatment of ED was published in 2004. This study used embryonic stem cells to treat ED. At this time, there is a total of 36 published basic studies assessing stem cell therapy for ED, with two clinical trials. The mechanism of action of stem cells is to generate angiogenesis with subsequent increase in cavernosal smooth muscle cells within the corporal bodies.46
ED may occur with or without other sexual dysfunction, including decreased libido (decreased interest in sexual activity), orgasmic dysfunction (troubles achieving an orgasm/climax), and ejaculatory dysfunction (problems with the fluid released during sex, including lack of ejaculation [anejaculation], small volume ejaculate, ejaculation that occurs too quickly [premature ejaculation], ejaculate that goes backward into the bladder [retrograde ejaculation] and pain with ejaculation).
Tests such as the bulbocavernosus reflex test are used to determine if there is sufficient nerve sensation in the penis. The physician squeezes the glans (head) of the penis, which immediately causes the anus to contract if nerve function is normal. A physician measures the latency between squeeze and contraction by observing the anal sphincter or by feeling it with a gloved finger inserted past the anus.
Positron emission tomorgraphy (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have led to a greater understanding to which center are activated during arousal. These imaging studies measure increases in cerebral blood flow or changes in cerebral activity on a real-time basis. Studies are performed when male subject are aroused by visual cues (usually sexual explicit photos or videos) and compared to images obtained during exposure to sexually neutral cues differences can be measured. Several studies have identified that the inferior frontal lobes, inferior temporal lobes and insular gyrus, and occipital lobes are involved with processing arousal cues, although each are likely to process different stimuli (20-23).
Soler et al. compared sildenafil to vardenafil and tadalafil (69). Sildenafil was effective in 85% of SCI patients, 74% of the patients on vardenafil and 72% of the patients on tadalafil. Sildenafil was associated with more rigid and longer lasting erections. Additionally, 50 mg of sildenafil was effective in 55% of patients compared to more than 70% of the patients on vardenafil and tadalafil requiring 20 mg for a similar response. Men who used tadalafil were able to achieve erections 24 hours after administration, improving overall satisfaction related to the possible spontaneity of sexual encounters. Del Popolo also evaluated the time/duration effectiveness of PDE5i sildenafil 50 mg versus tadalafil 10 mg (64). Tadalafil 10 mg significantly increased the percentage of successful intercourse attempts at 12–24 hours compared with sildenafil. One can suspect that vardenafil, which has a longer half-life than sildenafil, could offer a similar benefit but a study investigating this occurrence has yet to be performed.
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.
In patients with low testosterone, testosterone treatment can improve libido and erectile dysfunction, but many men still may need additional oral medications such as sildenafil, vardenafil, or tadalafil. Some studies suggest that men with ED and low testosterone may respond better to PDE5 inhibitors when given testosterone therapy; however, this is controversial.
Many experts believe that atrophy, a partial or complete wasting away of tissue, and fibrosis, the growth of excess tissue, of the smooth muscle tissue in the body of the penis (cavernous smooth muscle) triggers problems with being able to maintain a firm erection. Poor ability to maintain an erection is often an early symptom of erectile dysfunction. Although the condition is called venous leak, the real problem is not with the veins but malfunction of the smooth muscle that surrounds the veins. The end result is difficulty with maintain a firm erection (losing an erection too quickly) that is now believe to be an early manifestation of atherosclerosis and vascular disease.
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
This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.
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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