Achieving an erection is a complicated process, requiring transmission of sensations from the genital area to the nervous system and the return of nervous impulses to the muscles and blood vessels of the penis. Anything that interferes with this interchange, such as disease or injury of the blood vessels, muscles, or nerves, can make achieving and maintaining an erection difficult. Psychological factors, such as anxiety and depression, can also interfere with erectile function. Anxiety and depression may also develop as a consequence of impotence.
In order to establish whether normal erections are occurring overnight (nocturnal erections), the doctor may organise nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) testing. This involves wearing a monitor overnight in your own home. The data from this monitor is then assessed to analyse how often erections occurred, how long they lasted, and how rigid and large the penis was during the erections. If NPT testing is normal, the cause of erectile dysfunction is usually psychological. If not, further testing of the blood flow in the genital area may be required to see if there is blockage or leakage. The doctor may also organise a blood test of levels of hormones such as testosterone, prolactin and thyroid stimulating hormone to see if these are contributing to the erectile dysfunction.
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 These mechanical or physically invasive approaches have largely been superseded, however, by the drug sildenafil citrate (trade name Viagra), which is taken in pill form.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.
Penile prosthesis is the primary form of surgical therapy and is reserved for those men who fail, are intolerant of, or have contraindications to other forms of therapy. Currently, there are several different types of penile prostheses. The simplest is the malleable penile prosthesis, and the most complex is the three-piece inflatable penile prosthesis.
It is common for a healthy older man to still want sex and be able to have sex within appropriate limitations. Understanding what is normal in older age is important to avoid frustration and concern. Older men and their partners often value being able to continue sexual activity and there is no age where the man is ‘too old’ to think about getting help with his erection or other sexual problems.
A vacuum erection device is a plastic tube that slips over the penis, making a seal with the skin of the body. A pump at the other end of the tube makes a low-pressure vacuum around the erectile tissue, which results in an erection. An elastic ring is then slipped onto the base of the penis. This holds the blood in the penis (and keeps it hard) for up to 30 minutes. With proper training, 75 out of 100 men can get a working erection using a vacuum erection device.