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.


ED is often the result of atherosclerosis, and as a result, men with ED frequently have cardiovascular disease. Sexual activity is associated with increased physical exertion, which in some men may increase the risk of having a heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI). The major risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease are age, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, smoking, abnormal lipid/cholesterol levels in the blood, and lack of exercise. Individuals with three or more of these risk factors are at increased risk for a heart attack during sexual activity. The Princeton Consensus Panel developed guidelines for treating ED in men with cardiovascular disease. Thus, if you have ED and cardiovascular disease (for example, angina or prior heart attack), you should discuss whether or not treatment of ED and sexual activity are appropriate for you.

If PDE5 drugs don't work or cannot be used because of potential side effects, your doctor can recommend other therapies. The drug alprostadil (Caverject, Edex, Muse) allows blood to flow more freely in the penis, leading to an erection. The drug can be injected with a tiny needle into your penis. Or, a small pellet (suppository) can be inserted into the opening of the penis. Suppositories and injections are effective in the majority of men.

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.
The information shared on our websites is information developed solely from internal experts on the subject matter, including medical advisory boards, who have developed guidelines for our patient content. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.

A physical exam checks your total health. Examination focusing on your genitals (penis and testicles) is often done to check for ED. Based on your age and risk factors, the exam may also focus on your heart and blood system: heart, peripheral pulses and blood pressure. Based on your age and family history your doctor may do a rectal exam to check the prostate. These tests are not painful. Most patients do not need a lot of testing before starting treatment.

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