Erectile dysfunction (ED) is one of the most common conditions affecting middle-aged and older men. Nearly every primary care physician, internist and geriatrician will be called upon to manage this condition or to make referrals to urologists, endocrinologists and cardiologists who will assist in the treatment of ED. This article will briefly discuss the diagnosis and management of ED. In addition, emerging concepts in ED management will be discussed, such as the use of testosterone to treat ED, the role of the endothelium in men with ED and treating the partner of the man with ED. Finally, future potential therapies for ED will be discussed.


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.

Apomorphine is a non-selective D1/D2 receptor agonist with moderate efficacy and good tolerability in the treatment of mild ED (80). Apomorphine can be administered via subcutaneous injection or sublingually. However, studies have shows a lower efficacy for apomorphine compared to oral sildenafil (81,82). Apomorphine has a set role in the management of PD for non-motor symptoms, and has been reported to cause spontaneous erections and possible hypersexuality in PD men (83,84). Its role in the management of ED has been postulated for men with PD but should be considered as an alternative to sildenafil.


Other treatment options such as penile self-injection therapy, external vacuum pumps and the medicated urethral system for erection are in rare occasions an effective long-term treatment. Only a very small percentage of men will continue with these treatments as evidenced by a very high drop out rate and a very low refill rate. These treatments require extensive planning which interferes with spontaneity. This may be the reason why the refill rate is so low and the drop out of treatment so high.  


Penile erection is managed by two mechanisms: the reflex erection, which is achieved by directly touching the penile shaft, and the psychogenic erection, which is achieved by erotic or emotional stimuli. The former uses the peripheral nerves and the lower parts of the spinal cord, whereas the latter uses the limbic system of the brain. In both cases, an intact neural system is required for a successful and complete erection. Stimulation of the penile shaft by the nervous system leads to the secretion of nitric oxide (NO), which causes the relaxation of smooth muscles of corpora cavernosa (the main erectile tissue of penis), and subsequently penile erection. Additionally, adequate levels of testosterone (produced by the testes) and an intact pituitary gland are required for the development of a healthy erectile system. As can be understood from the mechanisms of a normal erection, impotence may develop due to hormonal deficiency, disorders of the neural system, lack of adequate penile blood supply or psychological problems.[18] Spinal cord injury causes sexual dysfunction including ED. Restriction of blood flow can arise from impaired endothelial function due to the usual causes associated with coronary artery disease, but can also be caused by prolonged exposure to bright light.
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.
Certain feelings can interfere with normal sexual function, including feeling nervous about or self-conscious about sex, feeling stressed either at home or at work, or feeling troubled in your current sexual relationship. In these cases, treatment incorporating psychological counseling with you and your sexual partner may be successful. One episode of failure, regardless of cause, may propagate further psychological distress, leading to further erectile failure.

Nerves originating in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia innervate the penis. There are autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic), and somatic separate and integrated pathways. The autonomic pathways neurons originate in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively. They merge to form the cavernous nerves that travel alongside the prostate, enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to affect the neurovascular events required for tumescence and detumescence. The somatic nerves send sensory information from the penile skin, glans, and urethra via the dorsal penile nerve and pudendal nerve to the spinal cord. The somatic nerves also initiate contraction of the ischio- and bulbocavernosus muscles.


Performance anxiety can be another cause of impotence. If a person wasn’t able to achieve an erection in the past, he may fear he won’t be able to achieve an erection in the future. A person may also find he can’t achieve an erection with a certain partner. Someone with ED related to performance anxiety may be able to have full erections when masturbating or when sleeping, yet he isn’t able to maintain an erection during intercourse.
Research has even found possible links to frequent ejaculation and a lower risk of prostate cancer. In one study of 32,000 men published in 2016 in the journal European Urology, for example, men who ejaculated at least 21 times per month while in their 20s were less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than those who ejaculated four to seven times per month. And men who ejaculated more often in their 40s were 22 percent less likely to get a prostate cancer diagnosis.
Metabolism (breakdown) of vardenafil can be slowed by aging, liver disease, and concurrent use of certain medications (such as erythromycin [an antibiotic], ketoconazole [Nizoral, a medication for fungal/yeast infections], and protease inhibitors [medications used to treat AIDS]). Slowed breakdown allows vardenafil to accumulate in the body and potentially increase the risk for side effects. Therefore, in men over 65 years of age with liver disease, or who are also taking medication(s) that can slow the breakdown of vardenafil, the doctor will initiate vardenafil at low doses to avoid its accumulation. For example,
Currently, there are no therapies that cure erectile dysfunction. However, a number of effective therapies are available that allow an individual to have an erection when desired. Depending on the cause of the erectile dysfunction, certain therapies may be more effective than others. Although there is limited data on lifestyle modification, intuitively, decreasing risk factors for erectile dysfunction may help prevent progression of disease.
Finally, there are NO-releasing polymers that are capable of delivering NO in a pharmacologically useful way. Such compounds include compounds that release NO upon being metabolised and compounds that release NO spontaneously in aqueous solution. Initial animal studies suggest that cavernosal injections of NO polymers can significantly improve erectile function.48
Research is mixed on the effectiveness of acupuncture as an erectile dysfunction cure, but one study published in November 2013 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that acupuncture can be beneficial for men experiencing erectile dysfunction as a side effect of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
Sildenafil has been previously suggested as a treatment option for ED in men with epilepsy (77,78). However, Matos et al. warned that PDE5i are potentially pro-convulsant and should be used with great caution in men with epilepsy (79). Animal studies in rat and mice overwhelmingly suggest PDE5i can reduce seizure threshold. In human trials, seizures were rare but reported. PDE5i exerted their proconvulsive effect by lower seizure threshold possibly by worsening sleep or obstructive sleep apnea, causing cardiovascular changes, or leading to EEG changes specifically with tadalafil use.
Six herbs for treating erectile dysfunction Erectile dysfunction can be an embarrassing condition that can leave men unable to achieve an erection or a full orgasm. This MNT Knowledge Center article talks about six different herbal supplements that could help people with erectile dysfunction, including ginkgo biloba, horny goat weed, and red ginseng. Read now
It starts with your online doctor visit. Your doctor needs to know about your health (e.g., your medications, lifestyle issues, prior surgeries) and how ED affects you. They also need a recent blood pressure (one done in the last 6 months), and personal ID so they know who they will be helping in the coming year. They review everything, determine if you’re a candidate for telemedicine and, if so (most people are), they will craft a personalized treatment plan.
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.
Commercials for drugs to improve “low T,” or testosterone, the male hormone, are now vying for airtime, but they address desire, not performance. "Male hormone is not an approved treatment for erectile dysfunction," notes Bennett. "It may be used to increase desire in men who have low testosterone, but it doesn’t improve blood flow to an erection." A doctor can do a blood test to check you for low testosterone, but it is a rare cause of ED. Hormone therapy with injections, patches, or gels applied to the skin may improve mood and sex drive, but it likely won’t fix any mechanical issues. Also, testosterone drugs should not be used by men with prostate cancer. Side effects include acne, breast enlargement, prostate enlargement, and fluid retention.
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.
These are not currently approved by the FDA for ED management, but they may be offered through research studies (clinical trials). Patients who are interested should discuss the risks and benefits (informed consent) of each, as well as costs before starting any clinical trials. Most therapies not approved by the FDA are not covered by government or private insurance benefits.
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