It is estimated that up to 20 million American men frequently suffer from impotence and that it strikes up to half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70. Doctors used to think that most cases of impotence were psychological in origin, but they now recognize that, at least in older men, physical causes may play a primary role in 60% or more of all cases. In men over the age of 60, the leading cause is atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can restrict the flow of blood to the penis. Injury or disease of the connective tissue, such as Peyronie's disease, may prevent the corpora cavernosa from completely expanding. Damage to the nerves of the penis, from certain types of surgery or neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, may also cause impotence. Men with diabetes are especially at risk for impotence because of their high risk of both atherosclerosis and a nerve disease called diabetic neuropathy.

Parasympathetic pathways originate from the intermediolateral cell columns of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sacral spinal cord segments. Preganglionic fibers pass through the pelvic plexus where they coalesce with sympathetic fibers from the superior hypogastric plexus. The cavernous nerves that innervate the penis arise from the portion of the pelvic plexus. The pelvic plexus also contains nerves that innervate the rectum, bladder and urinary sphincter and the nerve projections can be damaged during radical excision of the bladder, prostate and rectum, leading to iatrogenic ED (4).

In 1983, Brindley injected the corpora of several SCI men with phentolamine (85). Two out of the three men had a sufficient erection produced. Since then multiple reports on the efficacy of intracavernosal therapy have been published using, phentolamine, papaverine, prostaglandin, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), and these medications in combination (86-90). These medications have been found to be extremely effective for neurogenic ED due to their ability act locally and essentially bypassing neuronal pathways. Local therapies are usually considered second-line after PDE5i fail to elicit a desired response which can occur in about 25–30% of men with ED, in general (91). Furthermore, the locally delivered medications can be quite dangerous if not used appropriately as priapism and significant pain with injections can occur. These specific occurrences have been suggested as a reason for high discontinuation rates with intracavernosal therapy (92).

The first step in treating the patient with ED is to take a thorough sexual, medical, and psychosocial history. Questionnaires are available to assist clinicians in obtaining important patient data. (See Presentation.) Successful treatment of sexual dysfunction has been demonstrated to improve sexual intimacy and satisfaction, improve sexual aspects of quality of life, improve overall quality of life, and relieve symptoms of depression. (See Treatment.)
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
Surgery to repair arteries (penile arterial reconstructive surgery) can reduce impotence caused by obstructions that block the flow of blood to the penis. The best candidates for such surgery are young men with discrete blockage of an artery because of a physical injury to the pubic area or a fracture of the pelvis. The procedure is less successful in older men with widespread blockage of arteries.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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A number of treatments are available to treat erectile dysfunction. The typical treatment strategy starts with simple to use, noninvasive therapies and progresses to more invasive surgical therapies as needed. In all men, the first step is determining if there are any modifiable risks factors that can either improve or prevent progression of erectile dysfunction. Since the risk of developing ED is increased in the presence of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, it is thought that better control/prevention of these conditions may have a benefit in ED. Similarly, it is thought that lifestyle modifications to improve vascular function such as avoiding smoking, maintaining ideal body weight, and engaging in regular exercise might either prevent or reverse ED. Sexual counseling may also be useful in addressing relationship stressors as you work on improving your erectile function.
Psychotherapy, marital counseling, or sex therapy may be helpful in treating cases of impotence that have psychological or emotional causes. A range of other treatments exists for cases of impotence that arise from purely physiological causes. These treatments include vacuum devices, penile injections, and penile implants. These mechanical or physically invasive approaches have largely been superseded, however, by the drug sildenafil citrate (trade name Viagra), which is taken in pill form. This drug works by enhancing the effects of nitric oxide, a chemical that, upon sexual stimulation, is normally released to widen the blood vessels supplying the penis. The increased flow of blood through those vessels into certain tissues in the penis causes an erection. See also sexual dysfunction.
Psychological factors — Psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, guilt or fear can sometimes cause sexual problems. At one time, these factors were thought to be the major cause of impotence. Doctors now know that physical factors cause impotence in most men with the problem. However, embarrassment or "performance anxiety" can make a physical problem worse.
Knowing about your history of ED will help your health provider learn if your problems are because of your desire for sex, erection function, ejaculation, or orgasm (climax). Some of these questions may seem private or even embarrassing. However, be assured that your doctor is a professional and your honest answers will help find the cause and best treatment for you.
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