ED is a common occurrence after SCI, occurring in up to 80% of men, and results from disruption of the nerve pathways essential for erection (24,25). Different degrees of ED may occur depending on the spinal cord level of injury (LOI), extent of lesion and timing from injury. Reflexogenic erections can occur with lesions above L3 or L4 when the erectile spinal reflex arc remains intact. Psychogenic erections can occur with low lesions in the sacral and lumbar spinal cord but may not occur in complete lesions above T9 that can damage sympathetic outflow. Additionally, reflexogenic erections are not likely to occur in the spinal shock period that occurs after the initial cord trauma. Conversely, their occurrence may signal that the period of shock is over (26). Typically SCI affects younger men in their “sexual prime” and ED is associated with decreased quality of life (27).
In some cases, nocturnal penile tumescence testing is performed to find out whether the man has erections while asleep. Healthy men usually have about four or five erections throughout the night. The man applies a device to the penis called a Rigiscan before going to bed at night, and the device can determine whether he has had erections. (If a man is able to have normal erections at night, this suggests a psychological cause for his impotence.)
Factors that mediate contraction in the penis include noradrenaline, endothelin-1, neuropeptide Y, prostanoids, angiotensin II, and others not yet identified. Factors that mediate relaxation include acetylcholine, nitric oxide (NO), vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, pituitary adenylyl cyclase–activating peptide, calcitonin gene–related peptide, adrenomedullin, adenosine triphosphate, and adenosine prostanoids.
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The most common inflatable prosthesis is the three-piece penile prosthesis. It is composed of a pair of cylinders that are surgically placed into the corpora cavernosa, a reservoir containing sterile fluid that is placed in the abdomen and a pump that is placed in the scrotum. Tubing connects the cylinders, reservoir, and the cylinders. By pressing the pump several times, fluid is transferred from the reservoir into the cylinders. As the cylinders fill with fluid, they increase in width and this causes the erection. When one is finished with sexual activity, pressing the release valve on the pump allows the fluid to drain out of the cylinders back into the reservoir. Given the mechanical nature of the three-piece prosthesis, it has a greater risk of mechanical malfunction; however, modifications have been made such as lock out valves to prevent the prosthesis from automatically inflating as well as improving the tubing to prevent tubing leaks.
Years ago, the standard treatment for impotence was an implantable penile prosthesis or long-term psychotherapy. Although physical causes are now more readily diagnosed and treated, individual or marital counseling is still an effective treatment for impotence when emotional factors play a role. Fortunately, other approaches are now available to treat the physical causes of impotence.
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.
Medications: Many common medicines produce erectile dysfunction as a side effect. Medicines that can cause erectile dysfunction include many used to treat high blood pressure, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, and appetite suppressants. Examples of common medicines that can cause erectile dysfunction include propranolol (Inderal) or other beta-blockers, hydrochlorothiazide, digoxin (Lanoxin), amitriptyline (Elavil), famotidine (Pepcid), cimetidine (Tagamet), metoclopramide (Reglan), naproxen, indomethacin (Indocin), lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid), verapamil (Calan, Verelan, Isoptin), phenytoin (Dilantin), gemfibrozil (Lopid), amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall), and phentermine. Prostate cancer medications that lower testosterone levels such as leuprolide (Lupron) may affect erectile function. Some chemotherapies such as cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) may affect erectile function.
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.
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.
There have been rare reports of priapism (prolonged and painful erections lasting six or more hours) with the use of PDE5 inhibitors. Patients with blood cell diseases such as sickle cell anemia, leukemia, and multiple myeloma have higher than normal risks of developing priapism. Untreated priapism can cause injury to the penis and lead to permanent impotence. Therefore, if your erection lasts four hours, you should seek emergency care.
Certain street drugs such as "poppers" also can cause serious problems if taken with PDE5i medications. These poppers are often types of nitrates and can cause severe drops in blood pressure. Ecstasy is another street drug that may increase sexual desire but interferes with performance. This has prompted some men to combine ecstasy with PDE5i medications. This mixture (a combination sometimes called "sextasy") can improve erection ability but also causes severe headache and priapism. (Priapism is an abnormally prolonged erection that becomes extremely painful and may result in permanent damage to the erection mechanism.) There are also potentially dangerous effects to your heart from mixing PDE5i medications with various other street drugs.
If you are taking medications (alpha-blockers) for problems with an enlarged prostate, you should discuss your prostate medications with your doctor. Alpha-blockers also can cause lowering of the blood pressure. Thus your doctor will need to carefully watch your blood pressure when you start the PDE5 inhibitor. Common alpha-blockers include doxazosin (Cardura), terazosin (Hytrin), and tamsulosin (Flomax).
For best results, men with ED take these pills about an hour or two before having sex. The drugs require normal nerve function to the penis. PDE5 inhibitors improve on normal erectile responses helping blood flow into the penis. Use these drugs as directed. About 7 out of 10 men do well and have better erections. Response rates are lower for Diabetics and cancer patients.