Impotence, or erectile dysfunction (ED), is the inability for a man to sustain an erection long enough for normal, satisfying sexual intercourse.  To understand the underlying causes of impotence, it helps to know the basics about how an erection develops, along with potential problems that get in the way. Erections begin in the brain with a thought related to sexual desire. Then a chemical message travels from the brain to the penis. Blood flow to the penis increases as blood vessels leading to the reproductive system relax and allow for increased circulation.
Abstract | Full Text | Full Text PDF | PubMed | Scopus (58) | Google ScholarSee all References However, if optimally treated with β-blockers, lipid-lowering agents, and aspirin, these patients have no significantly increased cardiovascular risk associated with sexual activity, although they should receive appropriate risk information.88x88Jackson, G. The use of sildenafil in heart disease [editorial]. Hosp Med. 2000; 61: 526–527
Erections also require neural input to redirect blood flow into the corpora cavernosae. Psychogenic erections secondary to sexual images or auditory stimuli relay sensual input to the spinal cord at T-11 to L-2. Neural impulses flow to the pelvic vascular bed, redirecting blood flow into the corpora cavernosae. Reflex erections secondary to tactile stimulus to the penis or genital area activate a reflex arc with sacral roots at S2 to S4. Nocturnal erections occur during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and occur 3–4 times nightly. Depressed men rarely experience REM sleep and therefore do not have nocturnal or early-morning erections.
In some cases, however, these drugs may be unsuitable for patients with heart disease. If you are considering one of these drugs and you have heart disease, as many diabetics do, be sure to tell your doctor. In rare cases, the pills may create “priapism,” a prolonged and painful erection lasting six hours or more (although reversible with prompt medical attention).
The third Princeton Consensus (Expert Panel) Conference recommends assessing cardiovascular risk in all patients with ED and CVD. This refers to estimating the risk of mortality and morbidity associated with sexual activity. The current recommendations classify patients into low-, intermediate- and high-risk, based on their New York Heart Association class.57 The consensus also recommended that all patients with ED and CVD should undergo lifestyle changes, such as exercise, smoking cessation, healthy diet and weight reduction. These measures are likely to reduce cardiovascular risk and improve erectile function.58
Medications used in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, especially antihypertensive medications, have been implicated frequently in the development of sexual dysfunction. A study of 5485 patients in the Hypertension Detection and Follow-up Program found that, during a 5-year period, 8.3% of male hypertensive patients stopped taking their antihypertensive medications secondary to sexual adverse effects.35x35Curb, JD, Borhani, NO, Blaszkowski, TP, Zimbaldi, N, Fotiu, S, and Williams, W. Long-term surveillance for adverse effects of antihypertensive drugs. JAMA. 1985; 253: 3263–3268
The Massachusetts Male Aging Study of 1,290 men, aged 40–70 years, has documented the extraordinarily high prevalence of erectile dysfunction among aging men: 50% of men at 50 years of age, and 70% by age 70 have erectile dysfunction.2 Furthermore, a recent Italian study of men with severe heart disease has uncovered an astounding 93% with erectile dysfunction 24 months before their heart attack or onset of heart disease symptoms.3

Erection is a neurovascular event that involves spinal and supra spinal pathways. The final common pathway involves the release of nitric oxide (NO) from both endothelial cells and neurons, which acts as a vasodilator causing penile engorgement and erection. NO is degraded by the enzyme phosphodiesterase (PDE) type 5 in the penis. Erectile dysfunction (ED), defined as the persistent inability to achieve and/or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfactory sexual performance, results when the neurovascular pathway is interrupted by medical conditions or drugs. A 15-item self-administered questionnaire, the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF), is one of the most useful tools to evaluate erectile function (EF) in clinical trials, although of much less use in routine clinical practice. The MMAS (Massachusetts Male Aging Study) was the first major epidemiological investigation to study the prevalence of ED. The study found that ED was three times more common in patients with diabetes mellitus. The aetiopathogenesis of ED in diabetes is multifactorial, with vascular and neural factors being equally implicated. Hyperglycaemia is believed to give rise to biochemical perturbations that lead to these microvascular changes. In the MMAS, ED in diabetes was strongly correlated with glycaemic control, duration of disease and diabetic complications. The incidence increased with increasing age, duration of diabetes and deteriorating metabolic control, and was higher in individuals with type 2 diabetes than those with type 1.ED in men with diabetes often affects their quality of life and, as patients are often reluctant to come forward with their symptoms, a carefully taken history is one of the most useful approaches in identifying affected individuals. The PDE inhibitors have revolutionised the management of ED and oral drug therapy is currently first-line therapy for the condition. These agents act by potentiating the action of intracavernosal NO, thereby leading to a more sustained erection. Sildenafil was the first PDE5 inhibitor to undergo evaluation and has been studied extensively. More recently two other agents, vardenafil and tadalafil, have been introduced. All the drugs have been shown to be effective across a wide range of aetiologies of ED, including diabetes. The drugs have been shown to improve EF domain scores, penetration and maintenance of erection, resulting in more successful intercourse. Their effects are greater at higher doses. Sildenafil and vardenafil are shorter-acting agents, while tadalafil has a longer half-life allowing the user more flexibility in sexual activity. Common adverse effects include headache, nasal congestion and dyspepsia, all actions related to inhibition of PDE5. The drugs are generally well tolerated and withdrawal from the clinical studies as a result of drug-related adverse effects were rare. The use of PDE5 inhibitors in the presence of oral nitrates is absolutely contraindicated. The clinical studies to date have not evaluated the use of one drug in the case of treatment failure with another agent. Sublingual apomorphine, which stimulates central neurogenic pathways, is a new agent and may be a suitable alternative in those patients in whom PDE5 inhibitors are ineffective or contraindicated. In clinical trials, all IIEF domains except sexual desire were found to have improved after apomorphine. The median times to erection in these studies were 18.9 and 18.8 minutes for the 2 and 3mg doses, respectively. Intraurethral and intracavernosal alprostadil may be a useful alternative when oral drug therapy is ineffective or contraindicated. The management of ED in the diabetic patient may often involve a multidisciplinary approach where psychosexual counselling and specialist urologist advice is required in addition to the skills and expertise of the diabetologist. Finally, the introduction of the new oral agents have completely revolutionised the management of ED and allowed more individuals to come forward for treatment.


A limitation of the study is that the researchers did not assess the effects of untreated erectile dysfunction, or conversely, the effect of having an active sex life without taking erectile dysfunction drugs. The researchers also were unable to account for socioeconomic status; as a next step, they are planning a larger study that will include more health records and complete information on marital status, educational level and disposable income. They are also pursuing a separate analysis of outcomes from erectile dysfunction drugs in men with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

Abstract | Full Text | Full Text PDF | PubMed | Scopus (95) | Google ScholarSee all References Phase 2 and 3 trials reported minimal associated cardiac adverse effects, which occurred in 3% of patients taking sildenafil and in 3.5% of patients receiving placebos.10x10Kloner, RA and Zusman, RM. Cardiovascular effects of sildenafil citrate and recommendations for its use. Am J Cardiol. 1999; 84: 11N–17N
Ischaemic heart disease (IHD), also known as coronary artery disease (CAD), is a predominant manifestation of cardiovascular disease (CVD). CVD is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality, accounting for 17.3 million deaths globally every year; this figure is expected to grow to 23.6 million by the year 2030. Eighty per cent of these deaths occur in lower- and middle-income countries.5 ED and IHD are highly prevalent and occur concomitantly because they share the same risk factors, including diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidaemia, obesity and smoking.
There are many alternative treatments that may be used to treat erectile dysfunction, although their effectiveness hasn't been proven. Men may benefit from acupuncture to reduce stress and help treat erectile dysfunction. Some people claim that herbal supplements such as Korean red ginseng, ginkgo, and yohimbine may be helpful for treating erectile dysfunction. Other helpful supplements for treating erectile dysfunction may include DHEA (a hormone in testosterone) and L-arginine. However, it's important to remember that these and other supplements may actually contain harmful substances, so talk with your doctor before taking supplements for treating erectile dysfunction.
Medications used in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, especially antihypertensive medications, have been implicated frequently in the development of sexual dysfunction. A study of 5485 patients in the Hypertension Detection and Follow-up Program found that, during a 5-year period, 8.3% of male hypertensive patients stopped taking their antihypertensive medications secondary to sexual adverse effects.35x35Curb, JD, Borhani, NO, Blaszkowski, TP, Zimbaldi, N, Fotiu, S, and Williams, W. Long-term surveillance for adverse effects of antihypertensive drugs. JAMA. 1985; 253: 3263–3268

A number of nonprescription products claim to be herbal forms of Viagra. Some of these products contain unknown amounts of ingredients similar to those in prescription medications, which can cause dangerous side effects. Some actually contain the real drug, which should be given by prescription only. Although the Food and Drug Administration has banned many of these products, some potentially dangerous erectile dysfunction remedies remain on the market.
There’s one more thing to remember: A visit to a physician can be helpful even if a man doesn’t want to go near Viagra or try one of the alternatives. In some cases, a treatable medical condition such as low testosterone or depression could explain a case of ED. “Sexual health should not be viewed as a luxury, but rather as an essential component to wellness,” said urologist Ryan P. Terlecki, MD, of Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina.
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Jelqing is penile massage technique of ancient Arabic origin (52). Men who practise jelqing will stretch their penises while in a semi-erected state and repeatedly milk their penises from base to glans, with their thumb and index finger touching to form an “OK” hand sign around their penile shaft. This massage can be done daily with the aim to achieve greater penile length and harder erections. Unwanted side effects of bruising, pain and fibrosis had been reported. No studies have been done to evaluate the efficacy of jelqing objectively.
The physical exam should focus on femoral and peripheral pulses, femoral bruits (vascular abnormalities), visual field defects (prolactinoma or pituitary mass), breast exam (hyperprolactinemia), penile strictures (Peyronie’s disease), testicle atrophy (testosterone deficiency), and asymmetry or masses (hypogonadism). A rectal exam allows for assessment of both the prostate and sphincter tone, abnormalities that are associated with autonomic dysfunction. Sacral and perineal neurological exam will help in assessing autonomic function.
Tribulus terrestris is a dicotyledonous herbal plant of the Zygophyllaceae family, used to increase serum testosterone levels, which has only been shown in animal studies (40). A prospective, randomized, double blind study of 30 men showed that Tribulus terrestris was not more effective than placebo on improving IIEF scores or serum total testosterone (41). Two accounts of hepato-nephrotoxicity have been reported in young men who ingested high doses of this herbal medication (42,43).
Abstract | Full Text | Full Text PDF | PubMed | Scopus (272) | Google ScholarSee all References No data suggested adverse interactions between sildenafil and other drugs commonly used in the treatment of coronary artery disease, such as aspirin, heparin, or narcotics.10x10Kloner, RA and Zusman, RM. Cardiovascular effects of sildenafil citrate and recommendations for its use. Am J Cardiol. 1999; 84: 11N–17N
Severe testosterone deficiency, known as “hypogonadism,” is present in approximately 2–35% of men with erectile dysfunction.19 However, lesser degrees of deficiency are common, perhaps present in the majority, depending on the definition of “low” applied, the method of measurement, and the parameter being used to define testosterone (total, free, or bioavailable) deficiency.19,20 Most authorities agree that a total testosterone level below 300 ng/dL is clearly low, and that 300–400 ng/dL is low to low-to-normal. Most studies using testosterone replacement for erectile dysfunction have attempted to achieve blood levels of 450–850 ng/dL.

Finding a satisfying solution to ED can be a life-changing event for many men and their partners. In one study of 200 patients and 120 partners, both men and their partners found the AMS penile implant to be satisfying. 92% of patients and 96% of their partners reported sexual activity to be excellent or satisfactory.10 Talk to your doctor about your ED treatment options.
Since their introduction in the therapeutic field, more than a decade ago, PDE-5 inhibitors have revolutionized the treatment of sexual dysfunction. By blocking the activity of PDE-5 isoenzyme, localized throughout the smooth muscle cells of the vasculature (genital vessels included), PDE-5 inhibitors increase the levels of cyclic guanosine monophosphate thus exerting vasodilating properties and facilitating penile erection[40-42]. Due to these properties, sildenafil was the first drug of its class to receive wide acceptance. Its short half-life, food interactions and the associated visual disturbances however, paved the way for the development of newer PDE-5 inhibitors. As such vardenafil with its more rapid onset of action, and tadalafil with its longer half-life and the lack of food interactions or side effects, have offered significant alternatives to sildenafil[43-50].
ED is generally associated with significant changes in established cardiovascular risk factors. Atherosclerosis is the main cause of ED development in both the general population and patients with diabetes. However, the prevalence of ED is greater in patients with diabetes than in the general population.8 ED has been shown to occur at rates as high as 50 % in patients with CAD.9 A meta-analysis of 12 prospective cohort studies has provided evidence that ED is a predictor of IHD associated with an increased risk of CVD, stroke and all-cause mortality.10
A penile prosthesis is another treatment option for men with erectile dysfunction. These devices are either malleable (bendable) or inflatable. The simplest type of prosthesis consists of a pair of malleable rods surgically implanted within the erection chambers of the penis. With this type of implant the penis is always semi-rigid and merely needs to be lifted or adjusted into the erect position to initiate sex. Today, many men choose a hydraulic, inflatable prosthesis, which allows a man to have an erection whenever he chooses and is much easier to conceal. It is also more natural.
Based on this testing, EDDM patients were treated with behavioral therapy, intracavernosal (papaverine, PGE-1, or Trimix) or intraurethral PGE-1, a vacuum constriction device (VCD), or implantation of a penile prosthesis. Novel surgical procedures, ligation of incompetent cavernosal veins or penile revascularization, were seldom efficacious with EDDM and were soon abandoned. Although these nonsurgical therapies were efficacious, they were not widely requested because of their invasive or mechanical nature.

Normal male sexual function requires a complex interaction of vascular, neurological, hormonal, and psychological systems. The initial obligatory event is acquisition and maintenance of an erect penis, which is a vascular phenomenon. Normal erections require blood flow into the corpora cavernosae and corpus spongiosum. As the blood accelerates, the pressure within the intracavernosal space increases dramatically to choke off penile venous outflow. This combination of increased intracavernosal blood flow and reduced venous outflow allows a man to acquire and maintain a firm erection.


Alprostadil is an ED drug that comes in two forms. One form (Caverject, Caverject Impulse, or Edex) is injected into the side of the penis to increase blood flow and cause an erection within 5 to 20 minutes. Its effects last 1 hour or less. The most common side effect is pain. Other side effects include bruising, redness, numbness, bleeding, and irritation.
Research is mixed on the effectiveness of acupuncture as an erectile dysfunction cure, but one study published in November 2013 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that acupuncture can be beneficial for men experiencing erectile dysfunction as a side effect of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

When it comes to boosting sexual performance, many men will walk all over God’s green earth looking for ways to maintain a good sex life. Luckily men, all you have to do is walk — not run — 2 miles a day. This, along with other healthier lifestyle interventions can help obese men reduce their risk of ED, or even “reverse” current impotence, according to a 2005 study. This comes of importance, since maintaining a trim waistline is a good defense for ED, as men with a 42-inch waist are 50 percent more likely to have ED than those with a 32-inch waist. Getting to a healthy weight and maintaining it is a good strategy for preventing and treating ED.
SOURCES: American Urological Association, "AUA Guideline on the Management of Erectile Dysfunction: Diagnosis and Treatment Recommendations." Barksdale, J. Pharmacotherapy, May 1999; vol 19: pp 573-581. Ferrario, C. Journal of Clinical Hypertension, November/December 2002; vol 4: pp 424-432. Fogari, R. American Journal of Hypertension, January 2001; vol. 14: pp 27-31. Grimm, R. Hypertension, January 1997; vol 29: pp 8-14. Llisteri, J. American Journal of the Medical Sciences, May 2001; vol. 321: pp 336-341. WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Hypertension: Treatment With ACE Inhibitors."
Abstract | Full Text | Full Text PDF | PubMed | Scopus (66) | Google ScholarSee all References Overall, sexual intercourse does not lead to an extremely exaggerated heart rate or blood pressure level when performed in a familiar setting with one's usual partner.82x82Hellerstein, HK and Friedman, EH. Sexual activity and the postcoronary patient. Arch Intern Med. 1970; 125: 987–999
Abstract | Full Text | Full Text PDF | PubMed | Scopus (53) | Google ScholarSee all References Early work in this field, performed by Masters and Johnson in 1966, involved evaluation of young patients in a laboratory setting and found that heart rates and systolic blood pressure levels during sexual activity approached levels seen during maximal exercise.84x84Stein, RA. Cardiovascular response to sexual activity. Am J Cardiol. 2000; 86: 27F–29F
There’s one more thing to remember: A visit to a physician can be helpful even if a man doesn’t want to go near Viagra or try one of the alternatives. In some cases, a treatable medical condition such as low testosterone or depression could explain a case of ED. “Sexual health should not be viewed as a luxury, but rather as an essential component to wellness,” said urologist Ryan P. Terlecki, MD, of Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina.
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After analyzing 28 previous studies on the link between ED and heart disease, the researchers found a connection between erectile dysfunction and poor endothelial function. “Blood vessels are unable to fully dilate and allow blood to flow through,” explains Medicalnewstoday.com. “Endothelial dysfunction is an early sign of atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries, raising the risk of heart attack and stroke.” The researchers also determined that there was a thickening of one of the inner two layers of the carotid artery—another heart-disease indicator.
Control your blood sugar through your diet. Eating a diabetes-friendly diet will help you better control your blood sugar levels and lessen the amount of damage to your blood vessels and nerves. A proper diet geared at keeping your blood sugar levels in check can also improve your energy levels and mood, both of which can help reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction. You may consider working with a dietitian who is also a certified diabetes educator to help adjust your eating style.
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