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.
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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.
In general, PDE5i works successfully in about 65%-70% of all men with erectile dysfunction (impotence). The greater the degree of damage to the normal erection mechanism and severity of the ED, the lower the overall success rate. Men with diabetes and those with spinal cord injury reported between 50%-60% responding successfully to treatment with oral PDE5i medications. The lowest success rate has been in men who developed ED (impotence) after prostate cancer surgery (radical prostatectomy) for more advanced prostate cancer that required removal of both sets of nerves around the prostate. In men who did not have the nerves removed/damage, there is a better chance of response to PDE5 inhibitors.
Tadalafil (Cialis) is the third oral medicine approved by the U.S. FDA for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. Like sildenafil (Viagra) and vardenafil (Levitra), tadalafil inhibits PDE5 (as described earlier). Unlike the other PDE 5 inhibitors, patients should take tadalafil once daily and is approved for the treatment of BPH (benign enlargement of the prostate).
Diabetes is an example of an endocrine disease that can cause a person to experience impotence. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to utilize the hormone insulin. One of the side effects associated with chronic diabetes is nerve damage. This affects penis sensations. Other complications associated with diabetes are impaired blood flow and hormone levels. Both of these factors can contribute to impotence.
There have been some studies to suggest that a placebo effect that improves ED may work for some men. One study found that men taking an oral placebo pill showed as much improvement in ED symptoms as men who took actual medication to improve ED. Conversely, men who were given therapeutic suggestions to improve ED did not see signs of symptom improvement.
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.
Erections are neurovascular events, meaning that nerves and blood vessels (arteries and veins) are involved in the process of an erection and all must work properly to develop a hard erection that lasts long enough. Erection begins with sexual stimulation. Sexual stimulation can be tactile (for example, by a partner touching the penis or by masturbation) or mental (for example, by having sexual fantasies, viewing porn). Sexual stimulation or sexual arousal causes the nerves going to the penis to release a chemical, nitric oxide. Nitric oxide increases the production of another chemical, cyclic GMP (cGMP), in the muscle of the corpora cavernosa. The cGMP causes the muscles of the corpora cavernosa to relax, and this allows more blood to flow into the penis. The incoming blood fills the corpora cavernosa, making the penis expand.
The art of acupuncture has become the new treatment for everything from back pain, depression, and even ED. Impotence could be more of a state of mind, and acupuncture may help. Through this alternative therapy, fine needles are placed in various parts of the body to relieve pain or stress. Although there are many mixed studies for acupuncture and ED, many tend to confirm positive results. A 1999 study found acupuncture improved the quality of erection and even restored sexual activity in 39 percent of participants.
In patients with low testosterone, testosterone treatment can improve libido and erectile dysfunction, but many men still may need additional oral medications such as sildenafil, vardenafil, or tadalafil. Some studies suggest that men with ED and low testosterone may respond better to PDE5 inhibitors when given testosterone therapy; however, this is controversial.
Because the burning side effect is triggered by alprostadil, the formulations with the least alprostadil — tri-mix and certain versions of bi-mix — could work for men who experience burning with the single-drug formula. But some men might choose alprostadil alone because the multi-drug cocktails can cost more and must be dispensed by a compounding pharmacy — one that is authorized to mix medications on site — which could mean the added hassle of a long drive to pick up the drug.
Some men say certain alternative medicines taken by mouth can help them get and maintain an erection. However, not all “natural” medicines or supplements are safe. Combinations of certain prescribed and alternative medicines could cause major health problems. To help ensure coordinated and safe care, discuss your use of alternative medicines, including use of vitamin and mineral supplements, with a health care professional. Also, never order a medicine online without talking with your doctor.
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.
If PDE-5 inhibitors are not suitable or don’t work, other therapies include injections into the base of the penis, which cause flow of blood into the penis and a fairly immediate erection that lasts around an hour. The drugs injected are alprostadil (Caverject and Erectile dysfunctionex) and Invicorp (VIP and phentolamine). Alprostadil may also be inserted as a gel into the opening of the penis. This is not suitable if your partner is pregnant.
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Diabetes mellitus: Erectile dysfunction tends to develop 10 to 15 years earlier in diabetic men than among nondiabetic men. The increased risk of erectile dysfunction among men with diabetes mellitus may be due to the earlier onset and greater severity of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) that narrows the arteries and thereby reduces the delivery of blood to the penis. Atherosclerosis can affect the arteries in the penis, as well as the arteries in the pelvis that supply the penile arteries. Diabetes mellitus also causes erectile dysfunction by damaging nerves that go to the penis, much like the effect of diabetes on nerves in other areas of the body (diabetic neuropathy). Diabetes can also affect the muscles in the penis, leading to troubles with erections. Smoking cigarettes, obesity, poor control of blood glucose levels, and having diabetes mellitus for a long time further increase the risk of erectile dysfunction in people with diabetes.
The somatosensory pathways for erections originate in the penile skin, glans and urethra. Glans afferent sensory free nerve endings are 10-fold more than their corpuscular receptors, and are derived from Aδ and unmyelinated C fibers. The nerve endings coalesce to form the dorsal penile nerve along with other sensory nerve fibers. Through the pudendal nerve they enter the S2-4 nerve roots to terminate on spinal neurons and interneurons. The dorsal nerve is not purely somatic, however. Nerve bundles within the dorsal nerve contain nitric oxide (NO) synthase, found typically in autonomic nerves, and stimulation of the sympathetic chain can leak to evoked potentials from the dorsal nerve and vice versa (10-12).
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.
When we say it’s a barometer of men’s health, it’s a signal. It’s an indicator that things may be right or not. And so when a man develops an erectile problem– and we’re talking about something that is occurring over time. It’s not something that just occurred overnight. When it occurs overnight, it’s more often than not a psychogenic, an anxiety reaction.
PDE5 inhibitors, the primary second-line therapy, have been the mainstay of ED treatment since the release of sildenafil (Viagra) in 1998, with the subsequent development of many others, and still more in the development stage. These medications do improve erectile quality for the majority of men, and they work by enhancing blood flow in the corpora cavernosa. These medications are generally used on demand and need to be taken about an hour before sexual intimacy. Tadalafil (Cialis) is longer acting and does come in a daily preparation potentially eliminating the ‘on-demand’ need. The daily dosing of tadalafil, 2.5–5 mg\day, has also been approved by the FDA for treatment of symptoms of BPH.41 PDE5 inhibitors are contraindicated in men taking nitrates, but otherwise PDE5 inhibitors are very safe and effective. When PDE5 inhibitors are coadministered with nitrates, pronounced systemic vasodilation and severe hypotension are possible. Many patients with ED are elderly and have the same risk factors as patients with CAD, so these drug combinations are commonly considered or encountered in clinical practice.42
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Achieving an erection is a complicated process, requiring transmission of sensations from the genital area to the nervous system and the return of nervous impulses to the muscles and blood vessels of the penis. Anything that interferes with this interchange, such as disease or injury of the blood vessels, muscles, or nerves, can make achieving and maintaining an erection difficult. Psychological factors, such as anxiety and depression, can also interfere with erectile function. Anxiety and depression may also develop as a consequence of impotence.
Patients receiving penile prostheses should be instructed in the operation of the prosthesis before surgery and again in the postoperative period. The prosthesis usually is not activated until approximately 6 weeks after surgery, so as to allow the edema and pain to subside. The prosthesis is checked in the office before the patient begins to use it.
Erosion of the prosthesis, whereby it presses through the corporal tissue into the urethra, may occur. Symptoms and signs may include pain, blood in the urine, discharge, abnormal urine stream, and malfunction. If the prosthesis erodes into the urethra, a physician must remove it. If the other cylinder remains intact, it can be left in place. A physician leaves a catheter in place to allow the urethra to heal.
Parasympathetic pathways originate from the intermediolateral cell columns of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sacral spinal cord segments. Preganglionic fibers pass through the pelvic plexus where they coalesce with sympathetic fibers from the superior hypogastric plexus. The cavernous nerves that innervate the penis arise from the portion of the pelvic plexus. The pelvic plexus also contains nerves that innervate the rectum, bladder and urinary sphincter and the nerve projections can be damaged during radical excision of the bladder, prostate and rectum, leading to iatrogenic ED (4).
Several medications can interfere with the chemical processing of PDE5i medications by the liver. These can include ketoconazole (an antifungal medication known by the brand name Nizoral), erythromycin (an antibiotic), and cimetidine (also known as Tagamet, for reducing stomach acid). A lower dose of PDE5i medications should be used if one is taking any of these medications.
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.