Conditions associated with reduced nerve and endothelium function (eg, aging, hypertension, smoking, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes) alter the balance between contraction and relaxation factors (see Pathophysiology). These conditions cause circulatory and structural changes in penile tissues, resulting in arterial insufficiency and defective smooth muscle relaxation. In some patients, sexual dysfunction may be the presenting symptom of these disorders.
While erectile dysfunction can occur at any age, the risk of developing erectile dysfunction increases with age. According to the Massachusetts Male Aging Study, the prevalence of erectile dysfunction was 52% in men 40-70 years of age. The prevalence of complete erectile dysfunction increases from 5% at 40 years of age to 15% among men 70 years of age and older.
Alprostadil is an FDA-approved erectile dysfunction drug that can be injected directly into the penis to trigger an automatic erection. "Penile injection is the most effective type of ED treatment for men who can't take oral treatment," says Nelson Bennett, MD, a urologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. In fact, it has an 85 percent success rate. Possible side effects include a burning sensation and priapism, an erection that lasts more than four hours and requires medical treatment.
Traditionally, erectile impotence (the classical definition of impotence) is the failure to achieve penile erection during intercourse. It may have either physical or psychological causes. Alcoholism, endocrine disease, and neurological disorders are typical physical causes. Psychological causes include anxiety over performance, hostility or other negative feelings toward the sexual partner, and stress, anxiety, depression, or other emotional conflicts outside of the relationship. Erectile impotence occasionally occurs with age and, although attributed by the individual to the aging process itself, it is usually secondary to disorders of aging, such as faulty blood circulation or prostate disease. In cases of impotence caused by blood vessel dysfunction, an insufficient supply of blood flows into the penis, or the blood diffuses out into adjacent tissues.
Erections occur in response to tactile, olfactory, and visual stimuli. The ability to achieve and maintain a full erection depends not only on the penile portion of the process but also on the status of the peripheral nerves, the integrity of the vascular supply, and biochemical events within the corpora. The autonomic nervous system is involved in erection, orgasm, and tumescence. The parasympathetic nervous system is primarily involved in sustaining and maintaining an erection, which is derived from S2-S4 nerve roots.
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.
Somatomotor penile innervation originates in Onuf’s nucleus in the S2-4 spinal segments. These nerves travel to the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus muscles when activated lead to contraction necessary for the rigid-erection phase. Several animal studies show that stimulation of the somatomotor pathways may also be under sympathetic control, and adrenergic stimulation may lead to contraction of these muscles during ejaculation (13,14). Somatomotor spinal reflexes may also be initiated by genital stimulation. For instance, the well-known bulbocavernosus reflex is evidence this reflex exists; however the clinical significance of its absence in the neurological assessment of ED has not been substantiated (15).
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
A physical cause can be identified in about 80% of cases. These include cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, neurological problems such as following prostatectomy, hypogonadism, and drug side effects. Psychological impotence is where erection or penetration fails due to thoughts or feelings; this is somewhat less frequent, in the order of about 10% of cases. In psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment.
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.
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.
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 only one cause of sexual dysfunction. Other causes of sexual dysfunction include troubles with ejaculation, decreased libido, and troubles achieving an orgasm (climax). Some men may have premature ejaculation, which is a condition in which the entire process of arousal, erection, ejaculation, and climax occur very rapidly, often in just a few minutes or even seconds, leaving the partner unsatisfied. Premature ejaculation may accompany an erection problem such as ED but is generally treated differently. Troubles with erectile function may lead to decreased libido or interest in sex, however, many men with decreased libido have normal erectile dysfunction. Libido may be affected by psychologic factors, such as stress, anxiety, or depression but often is the result of a low testosterone (the male hormone) level.
Before pursuing ED treatments, though, bear in mind that improving heart health by losing weight, eating a healthier diet, exercising more and quitting smoking typically enhances erectile performance as well as one’s overall health. In addition, sex therapy counseling sessions can often ease or eradicate ED symptoms, if the underlying cause is psychological in nature, says Drogo Montague, M.D., director of the Center for Genitourinary Reconstruction at the Cleveland Clinic.
As blood flows into the penis, the corpora cavernosa swell, and this swelling compresses the veins (blood vessels that drain the blood out of the penis) against the tunica albuginea. Compression of the veins prevents blood from leaving the penis. This creates a hard erection. When the amount of cGMP decreases by the action of a chemical called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), the muscles in the penis tighten, and the blood flow into the penis decreases. With less blood coming into the penis, the veins are not compressed, allowing blood to drain out of the penis, and the erection goes down.
The primary nerve fibers to the penis are from the dorsal nerve of the penis, a branch of the pudendal nerve. The cavernosal nerves are a part of the autonomic nervous system and incorporate both sympathetic and parasympathetic fibers. They travel posterolaterally along the prostate and enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to regulate blood flow during erection and detumescence. The dorsal somatic nerves are also branches of the pudendal nerves. They are primarily responsible for penile sensation. 
With the pumps, erections last until the user hits the deflate button, which Kohler says “doesn’t happen” accidentally. He adds that pump prostheses “are locker-room proof: Nobody can see that you have one.” (Obviously, this is not the case with the always-on malleable rod option.) Implanted pumps are reliable, experts say, with more than 90 percent of the devices working for 12 to 15 years.
In some cases, ED can be a warning sign of more serious disease. One study suggests ED is a strong predictor of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease. The researchers say all men diagnosed with ED should be evaluated for cardiovascular disease. This does not mean every man with ED will develop heart disease, or that every man with heart disease has ED, but patients should be aware of the link.