Several pathways have been described to explain how information travels from the hypothalamus to the sacral autonomic centers. One pathway travels from the dorsomedial hypothalamus through the dorsal and central gray matter, descends to the locus ceruleus, and projects ventrally in the mesencephalic reticular formation. Input from the brain is conveyed through the dorsal spinal columns to the thoracolumbar and sacral autonomic nuclei.
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.
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.
Patients should continue testosterone therapy only if there is improvement in the symptoms of hypogonadism and should be monitored regularly. You will need periodic blood tests for testosterone levels and blood tests to monitor your blood count and PSA. Testosterone therapy has health risks, and thus doctors should closely monitor its use. Testosterone therapy can worsen sleep apnea and congestive heart failure.
Another approach is vacuum therapy. The man inserts his penis into a clear plastic cylinder and uses a pump to force air out of the cylinder. This forms a partial vacuum around the penis, which helps to draw blood into the corpora cavernosa. The man then places a special ring over the base of the penis to trap the blood inside it. The only side effect with this type of treatment is occasional bruising if the vacuum is left on too long.
The sensitivity of the skin of the penis to detect vibrations (biothesiometry) can be used as a simple office nerve function screening test. This involves the use of a small vibrating test probe placed on the right and left side of the penile shaft as well as on the head of the penis. The strength of the vibrations is increased until you can feel the probe vibrating clearly. Although this test does not directly measure the erectile nerves, it serves as a reasonable screening for possible sensory loss and is simple to perform. More formal nerve conduction studies are only performed in selected cases.
Zerman et al. performed penile implant surgery in 245 men with neurolgic impairment caused by spinal cord injury, CNS neoplasm, CNS infection, MS and SB (110). Mean follow-up time of 7.2 years was achieved in 195 patients, 50 patients were excluded for lost to follow-up or death from nonurological causes. Interestingly, 135 patients underwent penile implantation to assist with management of urinary incontinence and improve ability for condom/intermittent catheterization. Ninety-two patients patient underwent implantation for ED. Eighty two percent of patients were satisfied with implantation for ED, and 67% of partners were satisfied. Complications included infection (5%), perforation (0–18%), and technical dysfunction (7–33%). Perforation rates were high with the malleable device when it was placed through a subcoronal incision. After adopting an infrapubic approach the perforation rates dropped substantially.
Melanocortin receptor agonists were found to induce erections serendipitously. A study investigating the dermatologic use of Melanotan-II (MT-II) was found to generate erections unexpectedly leading to the development of MTII derivatives for ED treatment (120). MT-II was initially used to induce pigment changes in the skin for artificial tanning but has been suspected to induce melanoma, however (121).
Radical prostatectomy for the treatment of prostate cancer poses a significant risk of ED. A number of factors are associated with the chance of preserving erectile function. If both nerves that course on the lateral edges of the prostate can be saved, the chance of maintaining erectile function is reasonable. The odds depend on the age of the patient. Men younger than 60 years have a 75-80% chance of preserving potency, but men older than 70 years have only a 10-15% chance.
Prior to starting with treatment of erectile dysfunction, it is important to make sure that it is safe from a medical standpoint to participate in sexual activity. Sexual activity is physical exertion, and in some men with significant heart disease, this increase in physical exertion can increase the risk of a heart attack. Thus, it is very important to discuss your cardiovascular risks with your doctor prior to trying any medication or treatment for erectile dysfunction.
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.
In one study, 9.6% reported ‘occasional’ erectile dysfunction, 8.9% reported erectile dysfunction occurring ‘often’, and 18.6% reported erectile dysfunction occurring ‘all the time’. Of these, only 11.6% had received treatment.In another study, only 14.1% of men reported that they had received treatment, despite experiencing erectile dysfunction for longer than 12 months.
Finally, gene therapy and stem cell research has widened the frontier of ED treatment proposed as possibility to even reverse ED. Specifically, gene therapy pertains to repairing the cause of ED by restoring defective gene function and/or altering the expression of the mutant gene (32). Most of the available data on gene therapy are in the animal model. However, a phase I clinical trial in men with ED undergoing intracavernous injection with a DNA plasmid carrying the alpha-subunit of the corporal smooth muscle Maxi-K channel showed promise in increased erectile function based on IIEF assessment sustained throughout the 3-month study period (122).
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Somatomotor penile innervation originates in Onuf’s nucleus in the S2-4 spinal segments. These nerves travel to the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus muscles when activated lead to contraction necessary for the rigid-erection phase. Several animal studies show that stimulation of the somatomotor pathways may also be under sympathetic control, and adrenergic stimulation may lead to contraction of these muscles during ejaculation (13,14). Somatomotor spinal reflexes may also be initiated by genital stimulation. For instance, the well-known bulbocavernosus reflex is evidence this reflex exists; however the clinical significance of its absence in the neurological assessment of ED has not been substantiated (15).
The main surgical treatment of ED involves insertion of a penile implant (also called penile prostheses). Because penile vascular surgery is not recommended for aging males who have failed oral PDE5 inhibitors, ICI or IU therapies, implants are the next step for these patients. Although placement of a penile implant is a surgery which carries risks, they have the highest rates of success and satisfaction among ED treatment options.