Erections occur in response to tactile, olfactory, and visual stimuli. The ability to achieve and maintain a full erection depends not only on the penile portion of the process but also on the status of the peripheral nerves, the integrity of the vascular supply, and biochemical events within the corpora. The autonomic nervous system is involved in erection, orgasm, and tumescence. The parasympathetic nervous system is primarily involved in sustaining and maintaining an erection, which is derived from S2-S4 nerve roots.

Tests such as the bulbocavernosus reflex test are used to determine if there is sufficient nerve sensation in the penis. The physician squeezes the glans (head) of the penis, which immediately causes the anus to contract if nerve function is normal. A physician measures the latency between squeeze and contraction by observing the anal sphincter or by feeling it with a gloved finger inserted past the anus.


Traditionally, erectile impotence (the classical definition of impotence) is the failure to achieve penile erection during intercourse. It may have either physical or psychological causes. Alcoholism, endocrine disease, and neurological disorders are typical physical causes. Psychological causes include anxiety over performance, hostility or other negative feelings toward the sexual partner, and stress, anxiety, depression, or other emotional conflicts outside of the relationship. Erectile impotence occasionally occurs with age and, although attributed by the individual to the aging process itself, it is usually secondary to disorders of aging, such as faulty blood circulation or prostate disease. In cases of impotence caused by blood vessel dysfunction, an insufficient supply of blood flows into the penis, or the blood diffuses out into adjacent tissues.
3. Are there physical causes of erectile dysfunction? Erectile dysfunction may be a symptom of underlying medical conditions, which if not detected may cause further medical problems. A prior history of cigarette smoking, heart attacks, strokes, and poor circulation in the extremities (for example, intermittent claudication or cramping in your leg[s] when you walk) suggest atherosclerosis as the cause of the erectile dysfunction. Loss of sexual desire and drive, lack of sexual fantasies, gynecomastia (enlargement of breasts), and diminished facial hair suggest low testosterone levels. A prior history of pelvic surgery or radiation and trauma to the penis/pelvis/perineum can cause problems with the nerves and blood vessels. Symptoms of intermittent claudication of the lower extremities with exercise may suggest a vascular problem as a cause of the erectile dysfunction.
Supplements are popular and often cheaper than prescription drugs for ED. However, supplements have not been tested to see how well they work or if they are a safe treatment for ED. Patients should know that many over-the-counter drugs have been found on drug testing to have ‘bootlegged' PDE 5 Inhibitors as their main ingredient. The amounts of Viagra, Cialis, Levitra or Stendra that may be in these supplements is not under quality control and may differ from pill to pill. The FDA has issued consumer warnings and alerts.
PDE5i medications are absolutely not to be taken by men with heart conditions who are taking nitrates such as nitroglycerine or isosorbide (Isordil, Ismo, Imdur). Those with serious heart disease, exertional angina (chest pain), and those taking multiple drugs for high blood pressure are advised to seek the advice of a heart specialist before beginning therapy with sildenafil.
Physicians make a diagnosis of erectile dysfunction in men who complain of troubles having a hard enough erection or a hard erection that does not last long enough. It is important as you talk with your doctor that you be candid in terms of when your troubles started, how bothersome your erectile dysfunction is, how severe it is, and discuss all your medical conditions along with all prescribed and nonprescribed medications that you are taking. Your doctor will ask several questions to determine if your symptoms are suggestive of erectile dysfunction and to assess its severity and possible causes. Your doctor will try to get information to answer the following questions:
Herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto, and yohimbe have been touted as sexual enhancers, and some men have been tempted to try them to treat erectile dysfunction. Bennett warns, however, that none has been approved by the FDA or even shown by any reliable studies to prevent, treat, or improve erectile dysfunction. Moreover, supplements are unregulated and can have many side effects or interfere with prescribed medications you’re already taking. Don’t jeopardize your health by taking a supplement to treat erectile dysfunction without first talking with your doctor.
Alprostadil injections, which produce an erection in five to 20 minutes that lasts for about an hour. Patients use a fine needle to inject alprostadil (commonly known by the brand names Caverject Impulse and Edex) into the base or side of the penis. Side effects can include bleeding or fibrous tissue formation at the injection site as well as prolonged erection, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Currently, placement of a penile prosthesis is the most common surgical procedure performed for erectile dysfunction. Penile prosthesis placement is typically reserved for men who have tried and failed (either from efficacy or tolerability) or have contraindications to other forms of therapy including PDE5 inhibitors, intraurethral alprostadil, and injection therapy.


Diabetes is a well-recognized risk factor for ED. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that the prevalence of ED was 37.5% in type 1 diabetes, 66.3% in type 2 diabetes, and 52.5% in diabetes overall—a rate approximately 3.5 times higher than that in controls. [39]  The etiology of ED in diabetic men probably involves both vascular and neurogenic mechanisms. Evidence indicates that establishing good glycemic control can minimize this risk.

Cardiovascular diseases: The most common cause of cardiovascular diseases in the United States is atherosclerosis, the narrowing and hardening of arteries that reduces blood flow. Atherosclerosis (a type of vascular disease) typically affects arteries throughout the body; hypertension, high blood cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, and diabetes mellitus aggravate atherosclerosis. Hardening of the arteries to the penis and pelvic organs, atherosclerosis, causes insufficient blood flow into the penis. There is a close correlation between the severity of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries and erectile dysfunction. For example, men with more severe coronary artery atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries in the heart) also tend to have more erectile dysfunction than men with mild or no coronary artery atherosclerosis. Some doctors suggest that men with new onset erectile dysfunction undergo evaluation for silent coronary artery diseases (advanced coronary artery atherosclerosis that has not yet caused angina or heart attacks).
Proper informed consent with your physician should be performed to understand all risks and benefits of hormonal replacement therapy. Follow-up testosterone (hormone) levels and periodic blood counts as testosterone therapy is associated with a risk of an abnormally high red blood cell count, and prostate checks are necessary for all men on long-term testosterone replacement therapy as there are concerns regarding the risk of testosterone therapy in men with an underlying prostate cancer. The use of testosterone therapy does not cause the development of prostate cancer. Testosterone therapy may increase the size of the prostate and cause urinary troubles.
There are so many potential reasons a man might develop erectile dysfunction (ED), it's nearly impossible to generalize the best ways to treat it. What works for one man may not work for another simply because they are having problems for different reasons. That said, it may encouraging to hear that there are a variety of options that may be considered, from psychological counseling to lifestyle changes, medications to treatments and devices.
When sexually stimulated there is a release of a chemical, nitric oxide (NO) in the blood vessels of the corpus cavernosum. The NO stimulates the production of a compound called cGMP, which causes relaxation of the smooth muscle in the blood vessels supplying the corpus cavernosum. PDE 5 is an enzyme that breaks down cGMP. By inhibiting the breakdown of cGMP by PDE5, these medications allow cGMP to build up in the penis. cGMP causes muscles in the corpora cavernosa of the penis to relax. When the muscle is relaxed, more blood can flow into the penis and fill the spaces in the penis. As the penis fills with blood, the veins in the penis are compressed, and this results a hard erection. When the effect on PDE5 decreases, the cGMP levels go down and the muscle in the penis contracts, causing less blood to flow into the penis and allowing the veins to open up and drain blood out of the penis.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of hims, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
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.
Yohimbine: The main component of an African tree bark, yohimbine is probably one of the most problematic of all natural remedies for ED. Some research suggests that yohimbine can improve a type of sexual dysfunction that is linked with a drug used to treat depression. However, studies have linked yohimbine to a number of side effects, which can include anxiety, increased blood pressure, and a fast, irregular heartbeat. Like all natural remedies, yohimbine should only be used after advice and under supervision from a doctor.
Trauma to the pelvic blood vessels and nerves is another potential factor in the development of ED. Bicycle riding for long periods has been implicated, so some of the newer bicycle seats have been designed to soften pressure on the perineum (the soft area between the anus and the scrotum). Certainly, history of pelvic bone fracture, as well as previous pelvic surgery (orthopedic, vascular, colon-rectum, and prostate) may result in injury to the arteries or nerves that go to the penis.
I think that a very powerful argument to young men who want to perform at the highest level is to point out the destructive nature of what they’re doing. If they’re having 18 drinks per week, if they’re having three, four, five drinks at any one time, they’re going to guarantee that their erections are not going to be at the highest level. I can’t tell you the number of men who come in saying, they went out, they had a date, they had a big dinner– which, by the way, is also not a great thing for erections, because all the blood is now going to your gut instead of to the genital area. And how important lifestyle changes are to improving your performance, as well, if not better, than the medications. So make certain that you exercise modestly, not excessively. Make certain that you have a smaller meal on an evening or a day that you want to have a sexual encounter, because you want the blood to go, once again, to the penile area and not to your gut. And really, the whole idea of stress– if you’re stressed out, if you’re worried about a lot of things, if you’re distracted, you can’t initiate that psychic stimulus to your spinal cord and then ultimately to your penis. So stress management is incredibly important.
Prevention of some of the causes that contribute to the development of erectile dysfunction can decrease the chances of developing the problem. For example, if a person decreases their chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, they will decrease their chances of developing erectile dysfunction. Other things like stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet (heart healthy with adequate vitamin intake), and exercising daily may reduce a person's risk.
The downside to these prostheses includes the standard risks of surgery, the very low risk of infection — less than 2 percent in most patients, slightly higher in diabetics — and a slight drop in penis length versus a natural erection or other ED treatments. Also, unlike with other methods, any hope for a natural erection is abolished once a pump is implanted. The cost for surgical options varies, and insurance coverage is typically good.

Much of the emphasis on erectile pathophysiology has been placed on penile smooth muscle function and cavernosal hemodynamics. The neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of erection can be characterized but its full extent is poorly understood. Neurologic disease does not always reproducibly affect erections in a uniform manner compared to other types of sexual dysfunction (SD). This offers many obstacles to understanding the role the nervous systems plays in SD and consequently obscures what treatment options readily optimize erections specific to the neurologic insult.


While pills for ED are convenient, some men sustain stronger erections by injecting medication directly into the penis. Drugs approved for this purpose work by widening the blood vessels, causing the penis to become engorged with blood. Another option is inserting a medicated pellet into the urethra. The pellet can trigger an erection within 10 minutes.
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