Erectile dysfunction (ED), also known as impotence, is the inability to achieve or sustain a hard enough erection for satisfactory completion of sexual activity. Erectile dysfunction is different from other health conditions that interfere with male sexual function, such as lack of sexual desire (decreased libido) and problems with ejaculation release of the fluid from the penis (ejaculatory dysfunction) and orgasm/climax (orgasmic dysfunction), and penile curvature (Peyronie's disease), although these problems may also be present. ED affects about 50% of men age 40 and over. This article focuses on the evaluation and treatment of erectile dysfunction.
Pay attention to your vascular health. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides can all damage arteries in the heart (causing heart attack), in the brain (causing stroke), and leading to the penis (causing ED). An expanding waistline also contributes. Check with your doctor to find out whether your vascular system — and thus your heart, brain, and penis — is in good shape or needs a tune-up through lifestyle changes and, if necessary, medications.
Erections occur in response to tactile, olfactory, and visual stimuli. The ability to achieve and maintain a full erection depends not only on the penile portion of the process but also on the status of the peripheral nerves, the integrity of the vascular supply, and biochemical events within the corpora. The autonomic nervous system is involved in erection, orgasm, and tumescence. The parasympathetic nervous system is primarily involved in sustaining and maintaining an erection, which is derived from S2-S4 nerve roots.
If a trial of oral therapy and withdrawal of offending medications do not restore erectile function or if a patient has medical or financial contraindications to pharmacologic therapy, most primary care practitioners should consider referring the patient to a specialist for additional evaluation and discussion of alternative treatment options. However, some primary care practitioners may recommend vacuum constriction devices.
The great majority of ED cases in diabetic men have a physical cause, such as neuropathy or circulatory problems. In some cases, however, the cause of ED is psychological, including depression, guilt, or anxiety. With a thorough exam, the doctor should be able to determine whether the ED is psychological or physical in nature. If the cause is psychological, your doctor may refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, sex therapist, or marital counselor. Do not view such a diagnosis as an insult. Most psychologically-based ED is easily and successfully treated.
Implantation of penile prosthesis remains an important option for men with ED if medical treatment fails or is inappropriate. Prostheses are available as a saline-filled silicone device or a malleable device. The benefit of the former is a more natural appearance in the deflated state, closely approximating the appearance of a flaccid penis. The trade-off is a higher mechanical failure rate and higher cost. Satisfaction rates for patients who underwent penile prosthesis surgery have been reported to be near 90%.36 However, in the majority of patients who receive this treatment, less invasive alternatives have failed and therefore satisfaction with this treatment would be expected to be higher in this subset of patients. Risks of these devices include surgical and anesthetic risk, device infection, and device malfunction. Mechanical failure rates depend on the specific device being investigated. Overall, the percentage of devices that are free from mechanical failure at 5 years ranges from 84% to 94%.19 Infection rates in the era of coated devices and improved techniques are reported to be less than 1%.37
It is essential to discuss erectile dysfunction with your doctor, so any serious underlying causes can be excluded and treatment options can be discussed. Many men are embarrassed discussing this issue with their doctor, or even their partner. Open communication with your doctor, and in your relationship, is important for effectively managing this common problem.
Before taking any medication for erectile dysfunction, including over-the-counter supplements and herbal remedies, get your doctor's OK. Medications for erectile dysfunction do not work in all men and might be less effective in certain conditions, such as after prostate surgery or if you have diabetes. Some medications might also be dangerous if you:
Alprostadil is a potent vasodilator and smooth muscle relaxant identical to the naturally occurring PGE1. PGE1 binds with specific receptors on smooth muscle cells and activates intracellular adenylate cyclase to produce cAMP, which in turn induces tissue relaxation through a second messenger system (96). PGE1 is the only FDA approved form of intracavernosal therapy and is available commercailly as EDEX, or Caverject. Its efficacy was demonstrated in several clinical trials where the rate of responders ranged from 40% to 80% (97,98). The most common adverse event is penile pain, which is not related to the injection of the medication itself. In men with prolonged use the pain is usually self-limited (99).
Experts often treat psychologically based impotence using techniques that decrease anxiety associated with intercourse. The patient's partner can help apply the techniques, which include gradual development of intimacy and stimulation. Such techniques also can help relieve anxiety during treatment of physical impotence. If these simple behavioral methods at home are ineffective, a doctor may refer an individual to a sex counselor.
Moemen et al. compared the effectiveness and satisfaction associated with use of several ED therapies including sildenafil alone, intracavernosal injections (ICI) followed by sildenafil after ICI discontinuation and vacuum erections devices (VED) followed by sildenafil therapy after VED discontinuation (60). Seventy percent of men receiving vasoactive medications preferred sildenafil to ICI, even though rigidity was superior in the ICI group. All men using VEDs were dissatisfied with that form of therapy.
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.
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Getting your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in an optimal range will help protect your heart and blood vessels. Cholesterol management may include lifestyle interventions (diet and exercise) as well as medications to get your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in an optimal range.
Causes of impotence are many and include heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Parkinson's disease, Peyronie's disease, substance abuse, sleep disorders, BPH treatments, relationship problems, blood vessel diseases (such as peripheral vascular disease and others), systemic disease, hormonal imbalance, and medications (such as blood pressure and heart medications).
Erectile dysfunction in older men. Because erections primarily involve the blood vessels, it is not surprising that the most common causes in older men are conditions that block blood flow to the penis, such as atherosclerosis or diabetes. Another vascular cause may be a faulty vein, which lets blood drain too quickly from the penis. Other physical disorders, as well as hormonal imbalances and certain operations, may also result in erectile dysfunction.
In a randomized double-blind, parallel, placebo-controlled trial, sildenafil plus testosterone was not superior to sildenafil plus placebo in improving erectile function in men with ED and low testosterone levels.  The objective of the study was to determine whether the addition of testosterone to sildenafil therapy improves erectile response in men with ED and low testosterone levels.
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
Surgery: If neither drugs nor the vacuum pump works, your doctor may suggest surgery. With surgery, the doctor can place a device in your penis that will cause enough hardness for intercourse. In a few cases, infections may develop after the operation, and the doctor may have to remove the device. Another operation that may help you is rebuilding the blood vessels in the penis to increase blood flow into the penis or decrease blood flow out of the penis. These procedures can help you to get and maintain an erection.
When lifestyle changes alone don’t work, drug therapy (Viagra®, Cialis®, Levitra®, etc.) is normally the next step. Most of these medications work similarly to enhance a natural chemical in your body that relaxes the muscles in your penis. The goal of this medication is to increase your response to sexual stimulation by increasing the blood flow in your penis allowing you to get an erection.22
Another study compared the response of surgically and medically castrated rabbits to vardenafil with that of control rabbits.  Castrated rabbits did not respond to vardenafil, whereas noncastrated rabbits did respond appropriately. This result suggests that a minimum amount of testosterone is necessary for PDE5 inhibitors to produce an erection.
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.
Like all diabetic complications, ED can occur even when you have followed your doctor’s advice and carefully managed your diabetes. Also like all diabetes complications, ED is less likely to occur with good blood sugar control. Poorly controlled diabetes and high cholesterol increase the chances of vascular complications, which may lead to ED or other circulatory problems. In addition, regular smoking and alcohol use can contribute to ED.
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.
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.
All of these medicines work by relaxing smooth muscles and increasing blood flow in the penis during sexual stimulation. You should not take any of these medicines to treat ED if you are taking nitrates to treat a heart condition. Nitrates widen and relax your blood vessels. The combination can lead to a sudden drop in blood pressure, which may cause you to become faint or dizzy, or fall, leading to possible injuries.
Testosterone replacement therapy may improve energy, mood, and bone density, increase muscle mass and weight, and heighten sexual interest in older men who may have deficient levels of testosterone. Testosterone supplementation is not recommended for men who have normal testosterone levels for their age group due to the risk of prostate enlargement and other side effects. Testosterone replacement therapy is available as a cream or gel, topical solution, skin patch, injectable form and pellet form placed under the skin.
However, a review of a United Kingdom medical record database found no evidence that the use of 5-alpha reductase inhibitors independently increase the risk for ED. In 71,849 men with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), the risk of ED was not increased with the use of finasteride or dutasteride only (odds ratio [OR] 0.94), or a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor plus an alpha blocker (OR 0.92) compared with an alpha blocker only. In addition, the risk of ED was not increase in 12 346 men prescribed finasteride 1 mg for alopecia, compared with unexposed men with alopecia (OR 0.95). The risk of ED did increase with longer duration of BPH, regardless of drug exposure. 
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Poor sleep patterns can be a contributing factor for erectile dysfunction, Mucher says. One review published in the journal Brain Research emphasized the intricate relationship between the level of sex hormones like testosterone, sexual function, and sleep, noting that testosterone levels increase with improved sleep, and lower levels are associated with sexual dysfunction. Hormone secretion is controlled by the body’s internal clock, and sleep patterns likely help the body determine when to release certain hormones.
While pills for ED are convenient, some men sustain stronger erections by injecting medication directly into the penis. Drugs approved for this purpose work by widening the blood vessels, causing the penis to become engorged with blood. Another option is inserting a medicated pellet into the urethra. The pellet can trigger an erection within 10 minutes.