Think of erectile dysfunction as your body’s “check engine light.” The blood vessels in the penis are smaller than other parts of the body, so underlying conditions like blocked arteries, heart disease, or high blood pressure usually show up as ED before something more serious like a heart attack or stroke. ED is your body’s way of saying, “Something is wrong.” And the list of things that cause erectile dysfunction can include:

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.
The most common inflatable prosthesis is the three-piece penile prosthesis. It is composed of paired cylinders, which doctors surgically insert inside the penis. Patients can expand the cylinders using pressurized fluid (see figure 3). Tubes connect the cylinders to a fluid reservoir and pump, which doctors also surgically implant. The reservoir is usually in the pelvis. A doctor places the pump in the scrotum. By pressing on the pump, sterile fluid transfers from the reservoir into the cylinders in the penis. An erection is produced primarily by expansion of the width of the penis, however, one model can increase in length a small amount also. Lock-out valves in the tubing prevent the fluid from leaving the cylinder until a release valve is pressed. By pressing the relief valve and gently squeezing the penis, the fluid within the cylinders transfers back into the reservoir.

Erectile dysfunation medications may not be suitable for you if you have been told not to have sex, not to engage in sexual activity/actions that widen your blood vessels, have low blood pressure (hypotension), have recently had a stroke, have unstable angina, have had a heart attack or have a history of non-arteritic anterior ischaemic optic neuropathy. Men with cardiovascular disease/anatomical issue with their penis/priapism/taking long-lasting alpha-blockers should use with caution and discuss with a doctor first. Do not mix with drugs/medications containing nitrates.


With an inflatable implant, fluid-filled cylinders are placed lengthwise in the penis. Tubing joins these cylinders to a pump placed inside the scrotum (between the testicles). When the pump is engaged, pressure in the cylinders inflate the penis and makes it stiff. Inflatable implants make a normal looking erection and are natural feeling for your partner. Your surgeon may suggest a lubricant for your partner. With the implant, men can control firmness and, sometimes, the size of the erection. Implants allows a couple to be spontaneously intimate. There is generally no change to a man's feeling or orgasm.
If laboratory tests are performed, they would normally start with an evaluation of your hormone status (testosterone or male hormone), particularly if one of your symptoms is low sexual desire (low libido). Blood tests for testosterone should ideally be taken early in the morning because that's when levels are usually at their highest. It is recommended that if the first testosterone level is low to repeat it as testosterone levels can vary. If the testosterone level is low, other blood tests, such a luteinizing hormone and prolactin, can help determine if there is a problem with the pituitary gland.

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.
"Medications that create blood flow to the penis can't help when an erection is blocked by the fear or anxiety of the fight-or-flight response,” says Feloney. “This type of erectile dysfunction probably has a lot to do with evolution — men didn't need an erection when a dinosaur was chasing them." The best way to treat erectile dysfunction caused by performance anxiety, depression, a poor relationship, or stress may be with a combination of ED drug treatment and sex therapy, individual therapy, or couples therapy from sexual health professionals.
Surgery: If neither drugs nor the vacuum pump works, your doctor may suggest surgery. With surgery, the doctor can place a device in your penis that will cause enough hardness for intercourse. In a few cases, infections may develop after the operation, and the doctor may have to remove the device. Another operation that may help you is rebuilding the blood vessels in the penis to increase blood flow into the penis or decrease blood flow out of the penis. These procedures can help you to get and maintain an erection.

Martha K Terris, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Cancer Society, American College of Surgeons, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Urological Association, Association of Women Surgeons, New York Academy of Sciences, Society of Government Service Urologists, Society of University Urologists, Society of Urology Chairpersons and Program Directors, and Society of Women in Urology

Following a detailed discussion about the history of erectile dysfunction and its risk factors, your doctor will examine the testicles and penis to help determine the cause of erectile dysfunction. Your doctor will check reflexes and pulses in the area to see if problems with blood vessels or nerves are contributing to the erectile dysfunction. If necessary, your doctor will order tests to help diagnose erectile dysfunction.
You may find that using a vacuum device requires some practice or adjustment. Using the device may make your penis feel cold or numb and have a purple color. You also may have bruising on your penis. However, the bruises are most often painless and disappear in a few days. Vacuum devices may weaken ejaculation but, in most cases, the devices do not affect the pleasure of climax, or orgasm.
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Similar to heart-disease-related to atherosclerosis (plaque formation within the blood vessels), the concept of bypassing or angiographically dilating and stenting penile arteries has been entertained recently with improvements in microvascular surgery and interventional radiology. However, the main drawback with most erectile dysfunction is the failure of vascular relaxation within the corpora cavernosa rather than the one feeding penile artery. Stenting or surgical grafting to bypass a blockage would be ideal for a single obstruction site along a penile artery. Because most erectile dysfunction pathology resides within the sponge-like vascular plexus of the penis, the ability of diffusely dilating and expanding the many vascular chambers of the penis is difficult to impossible. As such, unless the situation is that the penile artery was injured during a pelvic trauma, and the potential to bypass another vessel into the single penile artery, the concept of vascular reconstruction or angio-radiology stenting has very low yield.
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:

Is your erectile dysfunction due to psychological (stress, relationship problems, etc.) or physical factors? Your doctor may ask if you note erections at night or in the early morning. Men have involuntary erections in the early morning and during REM sleep (a stage in the sleep cycle with rapid eye movements). Men with psychogenic erectile dysfunction (erectile dysfunction due to psychological factors such as stress and anxiety rather than physical factors) usually maintain these involuntary erections. Men with physical causes of erectile dysfunction (for example, atherosclerosis, smoking, and diabetes) usually do not have these involuntary erections. Men with psychogenic erectile dysfunction may relate the onset of problems to a "stressor," such as failed relationship. Your doctor may suggest a test to determine if you have erections during sleep, which may suggest that there may be a psychological cause of the erectile dysfunction.
A meta-analysis of 36 744 men with ED in 12 prospective cohort studies found that the presence of ED significantly increased the risk of CVD, CAD, stroke and all-cause mortality, and the presence of ED was an independent risk factor for CVD. Ponholzer et al found that men with moderate to severe ED had a 65% increased relative risk for developing symptomatic CAD compared with men who did not have ED.26
Total testosterone levels: Health care professionals should obtain a patient's blood samples for total testosterone levels in the early morning (before 8 a.m.) because the testosterone levels go up and down throughout the day. If you have a low testosterone level, a health care professional should check it again to confirm that it is truly low. In some men, a specialized test measuring the active form of testosterone (free or bioavailable testosterone) may be recommended.
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.

Clearly, PDE5i have revolutionized the treatment of ED in general and the neurogenic ED population is no exception. They remain safe and effective in most men with neurogenic ED; however, care must be taken in prescribing PDE5i to men high spinal cord lesions, MSA or possibly PD. VEDs are minimally-invasive and can be as effective as other modalities at leading to erection. However, high discontinuation rates are associated with VED use related to pain, difficulty using the device or cold penis. Intracavernosal therapy has been a mainstay of treatment for neurogenic ED and remains extremely successful in the SCI population. Trial of intracavernosal therapy for other causes of neurogenic ED can be considered second-line therapy, but there is a relative paucity of data for clinical outcomes related to its use outside of SCI men. Surgical therapy via penile implantation remains another second line approach and may also be utilized to assist men with bladder management. Higher complication rates of infections, and perforation have been reported compared to neurologically intact men. Many other compounds are currently being evaluated for the treatment of neurogenic ED as well as gene and stem cell therapy, but still should be considered investigational until substantiated by randomized controlled trials.
Sildenafil (Viagra) was the first oral phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor approved by the FDA in the United States for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (it is not approved for women). Sildenafil inhibits PDE5, which is an enzyme that destroys cGMP. By inhibiting the destruction of cGMP by PDE5, sildenafil allows cGMP to accumulate. The cGMP in turn prolongs relaxation of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. Relaxation of the corpora cavernosa smooth muscle allows blood to flow into the penis resulting in increased engorgement of the penis. In short, sildenafil increases blood flow into the penis and decreases blood flow out of the penis.
One study by Palmer and colleagues evaluated sildenafil use in SB males with thoracic lesions (76). A prospective, blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled, dose-escalation, crossover study in 17 patients with SB and ED was performed. All study participates took sets of tablet in groups, two sets of placebo, one of 25 mg, and the last 50 mg. Overall response to the tablet sets was measured by IIEF response and self-report of erectile rigidity. Patients reported that taking 50 mg of sildenafil led to improved erections, duration of erections, frequency of erections and level of confidence compared to sildenafil 25 mg and more significantly compared to placebo. Of the five patients who reported side effects, two experienced mild hematological changes that reverted to baseline after study completion.
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.

The physical examination can reveal clues for physical causes of erectile dysfunction. A doctor will perform an assessment of BMI and waist circumference to evaluate for abdominal obesity. A genital examination is part of the evaluation of erectile dysfunction. The examination will focus on the penis and testes. The doctor will ask you about penile curvature and will examine the penis to see if there are any plaques (hard areas) palpable. The doctor will examine the testes to make sure they are in the proper location in the scrotum and are normal in size. Small testicles, lack of facial hair, and enlarged breasts (gynecomastia) can point to hormonal problems such as hypogonadism with low testosterone levels. A health care provider may check pulses in your groin and feet to determine if there is a suggestion of hardening of the arteries that could also affect the arteries to the penis.
Erectile dysfunction is the inability to develop or maintain an erection that is rigid enough to allow penetration of the vagina, and therefore functional sexual intercourse. Generally, the term erectile dysfunction is applied if this occurs frequently (75% of the time) over a significant period if time (several weeks to months). If this is the case, the term impotence may also be used.
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).

This penile tumescence monitor is placed at the base and near the corona of the penis. It is connected to a monitor that records a continuous graph depicting the force and duration of erections that occur during sleep. The monitor is strapped to the leg. The nocturnal penile tumescence test is conducted on several nights to obtain an accurate indication of erections that normally occur during the alpha phase of sleep.

The diagnosis of erectile dysfunction relies on the history. It is important to ensure that the problem is truly erectile dysfunction and not a different type of sexual dysfunction. The evaluation of erectile dysfunction focuses on identifying possible medical causes of the erectile dysfunction. Thus, the physician should conduct a full medical history (reviewing past medical and surgical history, medications, and social history) as well as physical examination. Thereafter, a more focused and thorough sexual, medical, and psychosocial history should be performed. Erectile dysfunction is a delicate topic, and a doctor should be sensitive and caring to make you comfortable about sharing these intimate details of your private life. Prior to your visit, you may also complete a validated ED questionnaire such as the IIEF-SHIM questionnaire.
ICI Alprostadil may be used as a mixture with two other drugs to treat ED. This combination therapy called "bimix or trimix" is stronger than alprostadil alone and has become standard treatment for ED. Only the Alprostadil ingredient is FDA approved for ED. The amount of each drug used can be changed based on the severity of your ED, by an experienced health professional. You will be trained by your health professional on how to inject, how much to inject and how to safely raise the drug's dosage if necessary.
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