The role of the endothelium in erectile function became clearer with the observation that the phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor, sildenafil, enhanced erectile function. Erection occurs with the release of nitric oxide (NO) from the vascular endothelial cells.17 The reduction in endothelial cell production of NO results in the negative impact on the smooth muscles in the corporal bodies and results in less relaxation of the smooth muscle cells with decrease in blood supply and resulting ED. A similar phenomenon is well known to impact the coronary arterial system resulting in CVD.
NO is produced by the enzyme NO synthase (NOS). [13] NOS plays many roles, ranging from homeostasis to immune system regulation. To date, 3 subtypes have been identified: nNOS, iNOS, and eNOS, which are produced by the genes NOS1, NOS2, and NOS3, respectively. This nomenclature is derived from the sources of the original isolates: neuronal tissue (nNOS), immunoactivated macrophage cell lines (iNOS), and vascular endothelium (eNOS). The subtypes are not, however, limited to the tissues from which they were first isolated.
Nerves originating in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia innervate the penis. There are autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic), and somatic separate and integrated pathways. The autonomic pathways neurons originate in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively. They merge to form the cavernous nerves that travel alongside the prostate, enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to affect the neurovascular events required for tumescence and detumescence. The somatic nerves send sensory information from the penile skin, glans, and urethra via the dorsal penile nerve and pudendal nerve to the spinal cord. The somatic nerves also initiate contraction of the ischio- and bulbocavernosus muscles.
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.
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.
In their extensive review, Bassil and coworkers summarise the benefits and risks, with benefits such as improvement of sexual function, bone density, muscle strength, cognition and overall improvement in quality of life. Among the risks that have been suggested include erythrocytosis, liver toxicity, worsening of sleep apnoea and cardiac function, possibly increasing symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). They also note that although a possibility of stimulation of prostate cancer has been hypothesised, no scientific or clinical evidence exists to this possible risk.38
If you bike a lot and have a very narrow saddle on your bicycle, consider switching to a "no-nose seat" which is wider at the back than a conventional saddle, allowing more of your weight to be distributed to the sitting bones. Make sure the seat is level or angled slightly downward and at a height that allows your knee to be just slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal cycle. Raising the handlebars on your bike so that you're sitting upright may also help.
The role of the endothelium in ED has been noted for a number of years and the overlapping of ED and other conditions, especially coronary heart disease, CVD, affecting endothelial function/dysfunction, is clearly present. The endothelial cell is now known to affect vascular tone and impact the process of atherosclerosis, and impacting ED, CVD and peripheral vascular disease.16
As blood flows into the penis, the corpora cavernosa swell, and this swelling compresses the veins (blood vessels that drain the blood out of the penis) against the tunica albuginea. Compression of the veins prevents blood from leaving the penis. This creates a hard erection. When the amount of cGMP decreases by the action of a chemical called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), the muscles in the penis tighten, and the blood flow into the penis decreases. With less blood coming into the penis, the veins are not compressed, allowing blood to drain out of the penis, and the erection goes down.
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.

Penile implants - are generally used if physical damage (like an accident) makes the anatomical parts needed for an erection not work. These are inserted by surgery and can provide a permanent treatment choice if others fail to work. The implants can be semi-rigid or inflatable. They can be pretty expensive and are not usually available on the NHS.


Impotence is a common problem among men and is characterized by the consistent inability to sustain an erection sufficient for sexual intercourse or the inability to achieve ejaculation, or both. Erectile dysfunction can vary. It can involve a total inability to achieve an erection or ejaculation, an inconsistent ability to do so, or a tendency to sustain only very brief erections.
In their extensive review, Bassil and coworkers summarise the benefits and risks, with benefits such as improvement of sexual function, bone density, muscle strength, cognition and overall improvement in quality of life. Among the risks that have been suggested include erythrocytosis, liver toxicity, worsening of sleep apnoea and cardiac function, possibly increasing symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). They also note that although a possibility of stimulation of prostate cancer has been hypothesised, no scientific or clinical evidence exists to this possible risk.38
Under normal circumstances, when a man is sexually stimulated, his brain sends a message down the spinal cord and into the nerves of the penis. The nerve endings in the penis release chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, that signal the corpora cavernosa (the two spongy rods of tissue that span the length of the penis) to relax and fill with blood. As they expand, the corpora cavernosa close off other veins that would normally drain blood from the penis. As the penis becomes engorged with blood, it enlarges and stiffens, causing an erection. Problems with blood vessels, nerves, or tissues of the penis can interfere with an erection.
A meta-analysis of 36 744 men with ED in 12 prospective cohort studies found that the presence of ED significantly increased the risk of CVD, CAD, stroke and all-cause mortality, and the presence of ED was an independent risk factor for CVD. Ponholzer et al found that men with moderate to severe ED had a 65% increased relative risk for developing symptomatic CAD compared with men who did not have ED.26
However, in contrast, a recent systematic review of published studies, the authors concluded that overall, the addition of testosterone to PDE-5 inhibitors might benefit patients with ED associated with testosterone levels of less than 300 ng/dL (10.4 nmol/L) who failed monotherapy. [20] A limitation of existing studies are their heterogeneous nature and methodological drawbacks.

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.
• Medications: About 25 percent of ED cases are caused by drugs. Many medications, including common medicines prescribed for diabetes and its complications, can cause ED. The most common offenders are blood pressure drugs, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, appetite suppressants, and cimetidine (an ulcer drug). In addition, over-the-counter medications, including certain eye drops and nose drops, have been associated with ED. That does not mean you should stop taking these medications! Rather, you should discuss them with your doctor to determine whether a different dosage, an alternate medicine, or additional treatments will resolve the ED.
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.
As with most other organ system in the human body, changes and loss of function is normal consequence of the ageing process. This is also true of the endocrine system, specifically the levels of testosterone production from the Leydig cells of the testicle. Accompanying the decrease in testosterone is a decrease in erections which also has a component in decrease in the blood supply to the penis making erection not as frequent and not as rigid compared with a young man’s erectile function. Although these changes are in itself not life threatening, they can impact a man’s relationship with his partner, and also ED may be a harbinger of other undiagnosed conditions such as coronary artery disease (CAD), hypercholesterolaemia or diabetes mellitus.6

The lab testing obtained for the evaluation of erectile dysfunction may vary with the information obtained on the health history, physical examination, and recent lab testing. A testosterone level is not necessary in all men; however, a physician will order labs to determine a patient's testosterone level if other signs and symptoms of hypogonadism (low testosterone) such as decreased libido, loss of body hair, muscle loss, breast enlargement, osteoporosis, infertility, and decreased penile/testicular size are present.


Normal erectile function depends on the release of NO and endothelial-dependent vasodilation of the penile arteries. The ‘artery size’ hypothesis, first described by Dr Montorsi, offers an explanation why men are more likely to develop ED before a myocardial infacrtion. It is believed that atherosclerosis affects all vascular beds equally but smaller arteries are more likely to become occluded than larger arteries.31 32 The penile arteries are 1–2 mm while the coronary arteries are 3–4 mm. Thus, the same degree of endothelial dysfunction and atherosclerosis is more likely to occlude blood flow in the penile arteries compared with the coronary arteries. The penile arteries therefore serve as a sensitive indicator for subsequent CVD. This theory is supported by the fact that ED occurs approximately 3 years prior to cardiac symptoms in virtually all patients with chronic coronary syndrome whereas patients with acute coronary syndrome have a much lower prevalence of sexual dysfunction.32


An occasional problem achieving an erection is nothing to worry about. But failure to do so more than 50% of the time at any age may indicate a condition that needs treatment. About 40% of men in their 40s report at least occasional problems getting and maintaining erections. So do more than half (52%) of men aged 40 to 70, and about 70% of men in their 70s.


ED can also occur as a side effect of some medications, for example some high blood pressure medications such as certain diuretics and beta blockers. If you think that a medication you are taking has a negative effect on your sex life, you should discuss this with your prescribing doctor. Your doctor may be able to recommend an alternative treatment.
The most common treatment for erectile dysfunction is drugs known as phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5) inhibitors. These include tadalafil (Cialis), vardenafil (Levitra), and sildenafil citrate (Viagra). These are effective for about 75% of men with erectile dysfunction. They are tablets that are taken around an hour before sex, and last between 4 and 36 hours. Sexual stimulation is required before an erection will occur. The PDE-5 inhibitors cause dilation of blood vessels in the penis to allow erection to occur, and help it to stay rigid. Men using nitrate medication (e.g. GTN spray or sublingual tablets for angina) should not use PDE-5 inhibitors.

Performance anxiety can be another cause of impotence. If a person wasn’t able to achieve an erection in the past, he may fear he won’t be able to achieve an erection in the future. A person may also find he can’t achieve an erection with a certain partner. Someone with ED related to performance anxiety may be able to have full erections when masturbating or when sleeping, yet he isn’t able to maintain an erection during intercourse.
As blood flows into the penis, the corpora cavernosa swell, and this swelling compresses the veins (blood vessels that drain the blood out of the penis) against the tunica albuginea. Compression of the veins prevents blood from leaving the penis. This creates a hard erection. When the amount of cGMP decreases by the action of a chemical called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), the muscles in the penis tighten, and the blood flow into the penis decreases. With less blood coming into the penis, the veins are not compressed, allowing blood to drain out of the penis, and the erection goes down.
VIP is a neurotransmitter with regulatory actions on blood flow, secretion and muscle tone with intracorporal adenylate cyclase activation and smooth muscle relaxation. VIP has been shown to elevate cAMP intracellular concentrations without affecting cGMP levels. However, when VIP is given alone it may not induce erection and requires combination with phentolamine or papaverine for it to be effective (88). Common associated adverse effects were facial flushing and headache. VIP in combination with phentolamine is currently being used in the UK and Europe and is seeking regulatory approval for use in the United States.
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
The penis contains three cylinders, the two corpora cavernosa, which are on the top of the penis (see figure 1 below). These two cylinders are involved in erections. The third cylinder contains the urethra, the tube that the urine and ejaculate passes through, runs along the underside of the penis. The corpus spongiosum surrounds the urethra. Spongy tissue that has muscles, fibrous tissues, veins, and arteries within it makes up the corpora cavernosa. The inside of the corpora cavernosa is like a sponge, with potential spaces that can fill with blood and distend (known as sinusoids). A layer of tissue that is like Saran Wrap, called the tunica albuginea, surrounds the corpora. Veins located just under the tunica albuginea drain blood out of the penis.
Talk with your doctor before trying supplements for ED. They can contain 10 or more ingredients and may complicate other health conditions. Asian ginseng and ginkgo biloba (seen here) are popular, but there isn't a lot of good research on their effectiveness. Some men find that taking a DHEA supplement improves their ability to have an erection. Unfortunately, the long-term safety of DHEA supplements is unknown. Most doctors do not recommend using it.
×