Physicians make a diagnosis of erectile dysfunction in men who complain of troubles having a hard enough erection or a hard erection that does not last long enough. It is important as you talk with your doctor that you be candid in terms of when your troubles started, how bothersome your erectile dysfunction is, how severe it is, and discuss all your medical conditions along with all prescribed and nonprescribed medications that you are taking. Your doctor will ask several questions to determine if your symptoms are suggestive of erectile dysfunction and to assess its severity and possible causes. Your doctor will try to get information to answer the following questions:
Of the drugs used for depression, tricyclic antidepressants may be associated with erectile problems and other drugs may be substituted to prevent this complication. Currently available substitutes include bupropion, nefazodone, and trazodone. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (eg, fluoxetine, sertraline, paroxetine, citalopram) can also cause difficulties with ED, but they might also have other significant sexual side effects, including decreased libido and anorgasmia.
Alprostadil may be delivered via the urethra in the form of a pellet (MUSE) (107). This form of therapy has been trialed in SCI men with intermediate success (108). Bodner trialed MUSE dose escalation in SCI men and found 1,000 μg to be the most effective dose. Several men had hypotension when a constriction ring was not used in conjunction with the MUSE therapy.
ED is a common occurrence after SCI, occurring in up to 80% of men, and results from disruption of the nerve pathways essential for erection (24,25). Different degrees of ED may occur depending on the spinal cord level of injury (LOI), extent of lesion and timing from injury. Reflexogenic erections can occur with lesions above L3 or L4 when the erectile spinal reflex arc remains intact. Psychogenic erections can occur with low lesions in the sacral and lumbar spinal cord but may not occur in complete lesions above T9 that can damage sympathetic outflow. Additionally, reflexogenic erections are not likely to occur in the spinal shock period that occurs after the initial cord trauma. Conversely, their occurrence may signal that the period of shock is over (26). Typically SCI affects younger men in their “sexual prime” and ED is associated with decreased quality of life (27).
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
A physical cause can be identified in about 80% of cases. 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. In psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment.
There are so many potential reasons a man might develop erectile dysfunction (ED), it's nearly impossible to generalize the best ways to treat it. What works for one man may not work for another simply because they are having problems for different reasons. That said, it may encouraging to hear that there are a variety of options that may be considered, from psychological counseling to lifestyle changes, medications to treatments and devices.
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.
Injection therapy involves injecting a substance into the penis to enhance blood flow and cause an erection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug called alprostadil (Caverject) for this purpose in July of 1995. Alprostadil relaxes smooth muscle tissue to enhance blood flow into the penis. It must be injected shortly before intercourse. Another, similar drug that is sometimes used is papaverine—not yet been approved by the FDA for this use. Either drug may sometimes cause painful erections or priapism (uncomfortable, prolonged erections) that must be treated with a shot of epinephrine.
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
Recognized risk factors for ED include cardiovascular disease (CVD) (hypertension, atherosclerosis, and hyperlipidemia), diabetes, depression, alcohol use, smoking, pelvic/perineal surgery or trauma, neurologic disease, obesity, pelvic radiation, and Peyronie’s disease. One study suggested that the relationship between arterial disease and ED is very strong, with 49% (147 of 300) of patients with coronary artery disease noted on cardiac catheterization reporting significant erectile dysfunction.6 Endothelial dysfunction has been indicated as the pathophysiologic mechanism responsible for both CVD and ED.7 The Boston Area Community Health survey demonstrated a dose-response between smoking and incidence of erectile dysfunction.8 Animal studies have demonstrated both smooth-muscle disruption and decreased production of neural nitric oxide synthase in cigarette-exposed animals.9
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
In a prospective study from the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial database, Thompson et al reported that men presenting with ED had a significantly higher chance of developing a cardiovascular event over a 7-year follow-up period.  The hazard ratio was 1.45, which is in the range of risk associated with current smoking or a family history of MI.
The development of an erection is a complex event involving integration of psychologic, neurologic, endocrine, vascular, and local anatomic systems. Positron emission tomography scanning studies have suggested that sexual arousal is activated in higher cortical centers that then stimulate the medial preoptic and paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalamus.5 These signals ultimately descend through a complex neural network involving the parasympathetic nervous system and eventually activate parasympathetic nerves in the sacral area (S2 to S4).
Patients receiving penile prostheses should be instructed in the operation of the prosthesis before surgery and again in the postoperative period. The prosthesis usually is not activated until approximately 6 weeks after surgery, so as to allow the edema and pain to subside. The prosthesis is checked in the office before the patient begins to use it.
One study examined the role of testosterone supplementation in hypogonadal men with ED. These men were considered nonresponders to sildenafil, and their erections were monitored by assessing nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT). After these men were given testosterone transdermally for 6 months, the number of NPTs increased, as did the maximum rigidity with sildenafil.  This study suggests that a certain level of testosterone may be necessary for PDE5 inhibitors to function properly.
Although not proven, it is likely that erectile dysfunction can be prevented by good general health, paying particular attention to body weight, exercise, and cigarette smoking. For example, heart disease and diabetes are problems that can cause erectile dysfunction, and both are preventable through lifestyle changes such as sensible eating and regular exercise. Furthermore, early diagnosis and treatment of associated conditions like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol may prevent or delay erectile dysfunction, or stop the erectile dysfunction from getting more serious.
These medications don’t work for everyone but they are easy to use and work for around 60% of people who try them. They work by making it easier to get an erection by reducing the effect of (inhibiting) the chemical PDE-5. This chemical is used in the body to make sure there isn’t too much blood in the penis during an erection, but if you have erectile dysfunction then this chemical ends up over-compensating.
Alprostadil injections, which produce an erection in five to 20 minutes that lasts for about an hour. Patients use a fine needle to inject alprostadil (commonly known by the brand names Caverject Impulse and Edex) into the base or side of the penis. Side effects can include bleeding or fibrous tissue formation at the injection site as well as prolonged erection, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Oral medicines: The best known ED medications are the Big Three: Viagra (sildenafil citrate, made by Pfizer, Inc.), Levitra (vardenafil HCl, made by Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline), and Cialis (tadalafil, made by Eli Lilly). The three are chemically very similar, and all have proven very effective. Because they are effective, convenient, and relatively inexpensive (about nine dollars per pill), these medicines have become the treatment of choice for most men experiencing ED.
This is one of many types of constricting devices placed at the base of the penis to diminish venous outflow and improve the quality and duration of the erection. This is particularly useful in men who have a venous leak and are only able to obtain partial erections that they are unable to maintain. These constricting devices may be used in conjunction with oral agents, injection therapy, and vacuum devices.
The primary nerve fibers to the penis are from the dorsal nerve of the penis, a branch of the pudendal nerve. The cavernosal nerves are a part of the autonomic nervous system and incorporate both sympathetic and parasympathetic fibers. They travel posterolaterally along the prostate and enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to regulate blood flow during erection and detumescence. The dorsal somatic nerves are also branches of the pudendal nerves. They are primarily responsible for penile sensation. 
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).
When stimulated by the nerves, the spongy tissue arranges itself in such a way that more blood can be stored in the penis. The veins running through the outer sheath of the penis then compress which stops the blood from leaving the penis. As the blood is stopped from flowing out, the penis fills with blood and stretches within the outer casing, giving an erection.
Iatrogenic hypotension can occur in men in neurodegenerative disease using sildenafil (49). Hussain et al. placed men with PD and MSA on sildenafil and recorded blood pressure before and after. Half of the 12 MSA patients developed postural hypotension, while none of the twelve PD patients did. Since MSA can be difficult to distinguished diagnostically from PD, baseline blood pressure measurements prior to prescribing the medication and seeking medical assistance if symptomatic hypotension occurred was recommended for all patients with PD, and MSA. Of note, none of the men with MSA who developed hypotension discontinued sildenafil use due to its effectiveness at improving their erections.
The first line and by far the most common treatment today is with the prescription drug sildenafil citrate, sold under the brand name Viagra. An estimated 20 million prescriptions for the pill have been filled since it was approved by the FDA in March 1998. It is also the most effective treatment with a success rate of more than 60%. The drug boosts levels of a substance called cyclic GMP, which is responsible for widening the blood vessels of the penis. In clinical studies, Viagra produced headaches in 16% of men who took it, and other side effects included flushing, indigestion, and stuffy nose.
In some cases, nocturnal penile tumescence testing is performed to find out whether the man has erections while asleep. Healthy men usually have about four or five erections throughout the night. The man applies a device to the penis called a Rigiscan before going to bed at night, and the device can determine whether he has had erections. (If a man is able to have normal erections at night, this suggests a psychological cause for his impotence.)
The surgical procedure is performed through one or two small incisions that are generally well hidden. Other people will be unable to tell that a man has an inflatable penile prosthesis — most men would not be embarrassed in a locker room or public restroom. Complications following surgery are not common, but primarily include infection and mechanical device failure.
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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.
It is important for clinicians prescribing these drugs to make the patient aware of the action of the drugs especially the fact that they do not result in an immediate erection, and that they do not cause an erection without sexual stimulation. There is frequently a great expectation when men begin using these drugs and it is wise to temper their enthusiasm and explain they do not work immediately, and may not work every time, but also let the patient know that if these drugs do not work, there are other options.
Using a tiny needle and syringe, the man injects a small amount of medicine into the side of his penis. The medicine relaxes the blood vessels, allowing blood to flow into the penis. This treatment has been widely used and accepted since the early 1980s. The three most common medicines are prostaglandin E1 (alprostadil), papaverine (Papacon®), and phentolamine (Regitine®).
A vacuum constriction device (left) is a cylinder that is placed over the penis. The air is pumped out of the cylinder, which draws blood into the penis and causes an erection. The erection is maintained by slipping a band off of the base of the cylinder and onto the base of the penis. The band can stay in place for up to 30 minutes. The vacuum device can be safely used to treat most causes of erectile failure. Lack of spontaneity, discomfort, and cumbersomeness of the device seem to be the biggest concerns of patients.
The idea of using low-energy shock waves to treat erectile dysfunction comes from studies that show that these types of shocks help heart blood vessels regrow, a process called revascularization. Shock wave therapy may also work on the penis, and there have been some promising results, but it’s not currently an approved ED treatment. "It’s similar to the type of shock waves used to break up kidney stones, and it may cause revascularization,” says Bennett. “However, there are not yet any good controlled studies to recommend it to patients."
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
The inflatable type of device consists of cylinders that are implanted in the corpora cavernosa, a fluid reservoir implanted in the abdomen, and a pump placed in the scrotum. The man squeezes the pump to move fluid into the cylinders and cause them to become rigid. (He reverses the process by squeezing the pump again.) While these devices allow for intermittent erections, they have a slightly higher malfunction rate than the silicon rods.
Erections are initiated and maintained via integration of afferent inputs in the supra sacral regions of the central nervous system. Regions of the brain cited to have key roles in the integration of signals include the medial amygdala, MPOA, periaqueductal gray matter, paraventricular nucleus (PVN), and ventral tegmentum among others (16). Studies in animal models, particularly in rats, have been paramount in identifying these key areas of signal integration and control. Electrostimulation of the MPOA, PVN and hippocampus lead to erection and lesions in these areas may prevent erection (17). Marson et al. injected labeled pseudorabies virus into rat corpora cavernosa and traced them to neurons in the spinal cord, brain stem and hypothalamus (18). Stimulation of the rat dorsal nerve led to increased firing in the MPOA not found elsewhere (19). Axonal tracing in animals have shows direct projections from the hypothalamus to the lumbosacral autonomic erection centers. Oxytocin and vasopressin have been identified as central neurotransmitters within the hypothalamic nuclei and may have a role in penile erection (17). These signaling studies identifying key areas of erectile response integration may explain how ED is associated with cerebrovascular accident (CVA), Parkinson’s, epilepsy and MS.
PDE 5 inhibitors are broken down primarily by enzyme, cytochrome P450enzyme CYP3A4. Medications that decrease or increase the activity of CYP3A4 may affect levels and effectiveness of PDE 5 inhibitors. Such drugs include medications for the treatment of HIV (protease inhibitors) and the antifungal medications ketoconazole and itraconazole. Thus caution is recommended.
Yes, the vacuum device is effective. In fact, with use of the vacuum device, 88% of men will have an erection that is satisfactory for completion of sexual activity. The vacuum device may be the only therapy that is effective after the removal of a penile prosthesis. Patients also use vacuum devices as part of penile rehabilitation after radical prostatectomy to help preserve the tissue of the penis and prevent scarring within the penis and loss of penile length. Its use, however, is limited by the mechanical nature of it and the time taken to pump the device and apply the band. Sex partners may complain of the penis being cool to touch.
In the short term, alcohol relaxes muscles in the penis, letting blood to flow in (which is a good thing). However, alcohol also prevents other blood vessels from closing and trapping all the extra blood. Erections depend on trapping increased blood flow in the erectile tissue of the penis. If you don’t trap that extra blood, you don’t get an erection. In the long run, excessive alcohol consumption can cause liver scarring, high blood pressure, and can damage your blood vessels resulting in erectile dysfunction.