ED usually has something physical behind it, particularly in older men. But psychological factors can be a factor in many cases of ED. Experts say stress, depression, poor self-esteem, and performance anxiety can short-circuit the process that leads to an erection. These factors can also make the problem worse in men whose ED stems from something physical.
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).
In comparison, 37% of men who had received external radiotherapy as their primary therapy reported the ability to attain functional erections suitable for intercourse, along with 43% of men who had received brachytherapy as primary treatment. Pretreatment sexual health-related quality of life score, age, serum prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level, race or ethnicity, body mass index, and intended treatment details were associated with functional erections 2 years after treatment. 
ED can also occur among younger men. A 2013 study found that one in four men seeking their first treatment for ED were under the age of 40. The researchers found a stronger correlation between smoking and illicit drug use and ED in men under 40 than among older men. That suggests that lifestyle choices may be a main contributing factor for ED in younger men.
In 1983, Brindley injected the corpora of several SCI men with phentolamine (85). Two out of the three men had a sufficient erection produced. Since then multiple reports on the efficacy of intracavernosal therapy have been published using, phentolamine, papaverine, prostaglandin, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), and these medications in combination (86-90). These medications have been found to be extremely effective for neurogenic ED due to their ability act locally and essentially bypassing neuronal pathways. Local therapies are usually considered second-line after PDE5i fail to elicit a desired response which can occur in about 25–30% of men with ED, in general (91). Furthermore, the locally delivered medications can be quite dangerous if not used appropriately as priapism and significant pain with injections can occur. These specific occurrences have been suggested as a reason for high discontinuation rates with intracavernosal therapy (92).
Apomorphine is a non-selective D1/D2 receptor agonist with moderate efficacy and good tolerability in the treatment of mild ED (80). Apomorphine can be administered via subcutaneous injection or sublingually. However, studies have shows a lower efficacy for apomorphine compared to oral sildenafil (81,82). Apomorphine has a set role in the management of PD for non-motor symptoms, and has been reported to cause spontaneous erections and possible hypersexuality in PD men (83,84). Its role in the management of ED has been postulated for men with PD but should be considered as an alternative to sildenafil.
Approximately 95% of penile implant surgeries are successful in producing erections that enable men to have sexual intercourse. Moreover, patient satisfaction questionnaires show that up to 90% of men who have undergone penile implants say they would choose the surgery again, and overall satisfaction ratings are higher than those reported by men using oral medication or penile injection therapy.
Sildenafil has been previously suggested as a treatment option for ED in men with epilepsy (77,78). However, Matos et al. warned that PDE5i are potentially pro-convulsant and should be used with great caution in men with epilepsy (79). Animal studies in rat and mice overwhelmingly suggest PDE5i can reduce seizure threshold. In human trials, seizures were rare but reported. PDE5i exerted their proconvulsive effect by lower seizure threshold possibly by worsening sleep or obstructive sleep apnea, causing cardiovascular changes, or leading to EEG changes specifically with tadalafil use.
The somatosensory pathways for erections originate in the penile skin, glans and urethra. Glans afferent sensory free nerve endings are 10-fold more than their corpuscular receptors, and are derived from Aδ and unmyelinated C fibers. The nerve endings coalesce to form the dorsal penile nerve along with other sensory nerve fibers. Through the pudendal nerve they enter the S2-4 nerve roots to terminate on spinal neurons and interneurons. The dorsal nerve is not purely somatic, however. Nerve bundles within the dorsal nerve contain nitric oxide (NO) synthase, found typically in autonomic nerves, and stimulation of the sympathetic chain can leak to evoked potentials from the dorsal nerve and vice versa (10-12).
Factors that mediate contraction in the penis include noradrenaline, endothelin-1, neuropeptide Y, prostanoids, angiotensin II, and others not yet identified. Factors that mediate relaxation include acetylcholine, nitric oxide (NO), vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, pituitary adenylyl cyclase–activating peptide, calcitonin gene–related peptide, adrenomedullin, adenosine triphosphate, and adenosine prostanoids.
There are many different body parts that play an important role for a man to get and maintain an erection during sexual intercourse. Beyond the physical causes that can lead to ED, it has been reported that 20% of ED is related to psychological causes.2 With so many possibilities leading to erectile dysfunction, it becomes particularly important to find a specialist who can correctly diagnosis the direct cause of your ED and find a treatment option that is right for you.
Several pre-treatment factors have been described that may indicate success with PDE5i therapy. The presence of an upper motor neuron lesion up to T12 suggests a successful response, as well as requirement for a lower dosage of medication (62,68-71). Additionally, the presence of residual erections after injury or an incomplete SCI (ASI-A vs. ASIB-D) also improve the chance of PDE5i treatment success (59,67,68,71).
Parasympathetic pathways originate from the intermediolateral cell columns of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sacral spinal cord segments. Preganglionic fibers pass through the pelvic plexus where they coalesce with sympathetic fibers from the superior hypogastric plexus. The cavernous nerves that innervate the penis arise from the portion of the pelvic plexus. The pelvic plexus also contains nerves that innervate the rectum, bladder and urinary sphincter and the nerve projections can be damaged during radical excision of the bladder, prostate and rectum, leading to iatrogenic ED (4).
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
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MSA is a neurodegenerative disease of undetermined etiology, where ED is an early prominent sign occurring in 40% of men at the time of diagnosis (46,47). ED occurs in the majority of patients and the exact cause of it is unknown (48). Like PD, MSA likely affects the dopaminergic pathways within the brain essential for arousal (49). Orthostatic hypotension (OH) as a causal factor has been refuted by evidence that sildenafil can overcome reduced filling pressures, and the ED usually precedes the development of OH (46,49,50). Similar to other neurologic disorders that lead to ED, other disease related factors such as psychosocial stress, the burden of chronic illness, changed appearance, fatigue, decreased fine motor movement of fingers, immobility and diminished self-esteem due to loss of independence may contribute as well (51).
Erectile dysfunction is known to be associated with general health status, thus, lifestyle modification improves erectile function and decreases the rate of decline of function with aging. One year after discontinuation of smoking, patients were found to have a 25% improvement in erectile quality.16 In addition, multivariate analysis found obesity is associated with erectile dysfunction with an approximately 50% increase in ED in obese men as compared with normal weight men.17
ED occurs in up to 70% of men with MS, and MS is one of the most prevalent neurological disorders that affect the younger adult population worldwide (33-35). The mean time for SD and ED to develop is about 9 years and is rarely a presenting symptom of MS (36). Men with MS and ED may continue to have nocturnal erections, and psychogenic erections; however, this does not mean they have psychogenic ED but could be an indicator that MS involves the spinal cord (37).
In a 2005 study, three months of twice-daily sets of kegel exercises combined with biofeedback and advice on lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, losing weight, and limiting alcohol, worked far better than just giving the participants advice. “Wearing tight pants will affect impotence along with some other medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease,” which can also affect a man’s degree of impotence, Dr. Jennifer Burns, specializing in family practice with an emphasis on gastrointestinal health at the BienEtre Center, told Medical Daily.
Given the high risk of priapism during escalation of therapy for intracorporeal injection, it is recommended that the drugs be administered in a supervised office visit initially and that the patient be given a well-articulated plan for treatment of priapism if it occurs. Escalation guidelines for alprostadil alone vary, but a general guideline is to start at 2.5 mcg and increase by 2.5 mcg to a dose of 5 mcg and then in increments of 5 mcg to 10 mcg until an erection sufficient for penetration, not lasting more than 1 hour, is achieved. If there is no response to the initial 2.5-mcg dose, escalation dosing can be slightly more liberal.34 A European prospective trial of PGE1 alone found 91% of the 54 patients completing the 4 years of the study reported good or better tolerability and satisfaction with therapy.35
Move a muscle, but we're not talking about your biceps. A strong pelvic floor enhances rigidity during erections and helps keep blood from leaving the penis by pressing on a key vein. In a British trial, three months of twice-daily sets of Kegel exercises (which strengthen these muscles), combined with biofeedback and advice on lifestyle changes — quitting smoking, losing weight, limiting alcohol — worked far better than just advice on lifestyle changes.
Also called vacuum devices, penile pumps are devices that are placed over the penis to draw blood into the shaft. Once the vacuum creates an erection, the retaining band is slid down to the lower end of the penis and the pump is removed. An erection typically will last long enough for intercourse but your penis may be cold to the touch and the rubber band may restrict ejaculation.22
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alprostadil should not be used in men with urethral stricture (scarring and narrowing of the tube that urine and the ejaculate pass through), balanitis (inflammation/infection of the glans [tip] of the penis, severe hypospadias (a condition where the opening of the urethra is not at the tip of the penis, rather on the underside of the penis), penile curvature (abnormal bend to the penis), and urethritis (inflammation/infection of the urethra).
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).
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.