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.

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.
Penile injection therapy, intracavernous injection, involves the injection of a vasodilator (a chemical that relaxes arteries to increase blood flow) into the penis. Penile injected therapy is recognized as the most effective nonsurgical treatment for erectile dysfunction. However, due to the invasive nature, it is often used in men who have failed or have contraindications to other treatments such as oral therapies.
"Medications that create blood flow to the penis can't help when an erection is blocked by the fear or anxiety of the fight-or-flight response,” says Feloney. “This type of erectile dysfunction probably has a lot to do with evolution — men didn't need an erection when a dinosaur was chasing them." The best way to treat erectile dysfunction caused by performance anxiety, depression, a poor relationship, or stress may be with a combination of ED drug treatment and sex therapy, individual therapy, or couples therapy from sexual health professionals.

Monitoring erections that occur during sleep (nocturnal penile tumescence) can help you and your doctor to understand if the erectile dysfunction is due to psychological or physical causes. The nocturnal penile tumescence test is a study to evaluate erections at night. Normally men have three to five erections per eight hours of sleep. The test can be performed at home or in a sleep lab. The most accurate way to perform the test involves a special device that is connected to two rings. The rings are placed around the penis, one at the tip of the penis and the other at the bottom (base) of the penis. The device records how many erections occur, how long they last, and how rigid they are. The test is limited in that it does not assess the ability to penetrate.

The causes of erectile dysfunction include aging, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, cigarette smoking, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), depression, nerve or spinal cord damage, medication side effects, alcoholism or other substance (drug) abuse, pelvic surgery including radical prostatectomy, pelvic radiation, penile/perineal/pelvic trauma such as pelvic fracture, Peyronie's disease (a disorder that causes curvature of the penis and sometimes painful erections), and low testosterone levels.
This category of treatments includes external vacuum therapies: devices that go around the penis and produce erections by increasing the flow of blood in, while constricting the flow out. Such devices imitate a natural erection, and do not interfere with orgasm. External vacuum therapy mechanisms are approximately 95 percent successful in causing and sustaining an erection. All are portable, and costs range between $200-$500, covered under most insurance plans and Medicare Part B.
Aging, liver and kidney problems, and concurrent use of certain medications (such as erythromycin [an antibiotic] and protease inhibitors for HIV) slows the metabolism (breakdown) of sildenafil. Slowed breakdown allows sildenafil to accumulate in the body and potentially may increase the risk of side effects. Therefore, in men over 65 years of age, in men with significant kidney and liver disease, and in men who also are taking medications called protease inhibitors, the doctor will initiate sildenafil at a lower dose (25 mg) to avoid accumulation of sildenafil in the body. A protease inhibitor ritonavir (Norvir) is especially potent in increasing the accumulation of sildenafil, thus men who are taking Norvir should not take sildenafil doses higher than 25 mg and at a frequency of no greater than once in 48 hours. Other medications that may affect the level of sildenafil include erythromycin and ketoconazole.
VED involved placing the penis in a clear plastic tube where negative pressure created by the vacuum pump leads to penile engorgement and tumescence. Usually a constriction ring can be placed on the base of penis following penile engorgement. Some men complain of bruising, a “cold” penis and pain associated with the constriction ring; however, in some men with NED sensation may not be intact mitigating the side effects of VEDs. VEDs have reported effectiveness up to 90% in certain ED populations and it remains a non-invasive means to achieve and erection.
Modern drug therapy for ED made a significant advance in 1983, when British physiologist Giles Brindley dropped his trousers and demonstrated to a shocked Urodynamics Society audience his papaverine-induced erection.[35] The drug Brindley injected into his penis was a non-specific vasodilator, an alpha-blocking agent, and the mechanism of action was clearly corporal smooth muscle relaxation. The effect that Brindley discovered established the fundamentals for the later development of specific, safe, and orally effective drug therapies.[36][better source needed][37][better source needed]
The inability to achieve or sustain a sufficiently firm penile erection (tumescence) to allow normal vaginal sexual intercourse. The great majority of cases are not caused by organic disease and most men experience occasional periods of impotence. It is often related to anxiety about performance and is usually readily corrected by simple counselling methods which prescribe sensual massage but forbid coitus. Organic impotence may be caused by DIABETES, MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS, spinal cord disorders and heart disease. Many cases can be helped by the drug SILDENAFIL (Viagra).

A physical cause can be identified in about 80% of cases.[2] These include cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, neurological problems such as following prostatectomy, hypogonadism, and drug side effects. Psychological impotence is where erection or penetration fails due to thoughts or feelings; this is somewhat less frequent, in the order of about 10% of cases.[2] In psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment.
Some men report being helped by an oral medication called yohimbine, which comes from the bark of a tree that grows in India and Africa. This drug, which needs to be taken every day, has been reported to help about 20 to 25 percent of the men taking it. A relatively new but widely used oral medication called Viagra requires a careful medical evaluation by your doctor.
The most common inflatable prosthesis is the three-piece penile prosthesis. It is composed of paired cylinders, which doctors surgically insert inside the penis. Patients can expand the cylinders using pressurized fluid (see figure 3). Tubes connect the cylinders to a fluid reservoir and pump, which doctors also surgically implant. The reservoir is usually in the pelvis. A doctor places the pump in the scrotum. By pressing on the pump, sterile fluid transfers from the reservoir into the cylinders in the penis. An erection is produced primarily by expansion of the width of the penis, however, one model can increase in length a small amount also. Lock-out valves in the tubing prevent the fluid from leaving the cylinder until a release valve is pressed. By pressing the relief valve and gently squeezing the penis, the fluid within the cylinders transfers back into the reservoir.
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.
Alprostadil self-injection. With this method, you use a fine needle to inject alprostadil (Caverject Impulse, Edex) into the base or side of your penis. In some cases, medications generally used for other conditions are used for penile injections on their own or in combination. Examples include papaverine, alprostadil and phentolamine. Often these combination medications are known as bimix (if two medications are included) or trimix (if three are included).
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Intraurethral alprostadil is contraindicated in individuals who have abnormal penile anatomy (for example, urethral stricture, severe hypospadias with penile curvature), patients with acute or chronic irritation/infection of the urethra, individuals prone to priapism such as those with sickle cell anemia, thrombocytopenia, polycythemia, multiple myeloma, or are prone to blood clots. Intraurethral alprostadil should not be used for sexual intercourse with a pregnant woman.
Hormone deficiency or hypogonadism, whether primary or secondary, has been thought to impact erectile function. Approximately a third of men in the European Male Aging Study demonstrated low testosterone, suggesting that hypogonadism is overrepresented among men with ED.11 Hormone deficiency, however, is less frequently the cause of ED than diabetes or vascular disease. Many entities with a strong relationship to ED also diminish bioavailable testosterone, including obesity, diabetes, and opioid use. Other hormones involved in testosterone metabolism or availability, like thyroid stimulating hormone and gonadotropins, also may impact erectile quality, presumably through regulating bioavailable testosterone. Understanding the relationship between testosterone and ED has been impaired by a lack of standardized measurement of this hormone and the cyclic nature of its release and consumption.
Certain types of blood pressure medications, antiulcer drugs, antihistamines, tranquilizers (especially before intercourse), antifungals (hetoconazole), antipsychotics, antianxiety drugs, and antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, including Prozac and Paxil), can interfere with erectile function. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and illicit drug use may also contribute. In rare cases, low levels of the male hormone testosterone may contribute to erectile failure. Finally, psychological factors, such as stress, guilt, or anxiety, may also play a role, even when the impotence is primarily due to organic causes.
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.
Several studies accessed the prevalence of ED. The Massachusetts Male Aging Study reported a prevalence of 52%.2 The study demonstrated that ED is increasingly prevalent with age: approximately 40% of men are affected at age 40 and nearly 70% of men are affected at age 70. The prevalence of complete ED increased from 5% at age 40 to 15% at age 70.2 Age was the variable most strongly associated with ED.
Alprostadil is an FDA-approved erectile dysfunction drug that can be injected directly into the penis to trigger an automatic erection. "Penile injection is the most effective type of ED treatment for men who can't take oral treatment," says Nelson Bennett, MD, a urologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. In fact, it has an 85 percent success rate. Possible side effects include a burning sensation and priapism, an erection that lasts more than four hours and requires medical treatment.

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.
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.
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.
When we say it’s a barometer of men’s health, it’s a signal. It’s an indicator that things may be right or not. And so when a man develops an erectile problem– and we’re talking about something that is occurring over time. It’s not something that just occurred overnight. When it occurs overnight, it’s more often than not a psychogenic, an anxiety reaction.
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