A CVA can occur anywhere through the brain, midbrain, brainstem and spinal cord leading to varying degrees of SD depending on location. A decline in libido, erection and ejaculation are frequent in men who have had a CVA, with a reported prevalence of ED that varies from 17% to 48% (28,29). Right hemispheric infarcts seem to affect erections more so than left-sided ones. The exact effects of CVA on sexual function are complex and multifactorial, as disability, psychological and emotional status can affect sexual function aside from the location of the CVA.
Several pathways have been described to explain how information travels from the hypothalamus to the sacral autonomic centers. One pathway travels from the dorsomedial hypothalamus through the dorsal and central gray matter, descends to the locus ceruleus, and projects ventrally in the mesencephalic reticular formation. Input from the brain is conveyed through the dorsal spinal columns to the thoracolumbar and sacral autonomic nuclei.
Long-term predictions based on an aging population and an increase in risk factors (eg, hypertension, diabetes, vascular disease, pelvic and prostate surgery, benign prostatic hyperplasia, and lower urinary tract symptoms) suggest a large increase in the number of men with ED. In addition, the prevalence of ED is underestimated because physicians frequently do not question their patients about this disorder.
Soler et al. compared sildenafil to vardenafil and tadalafil (69). Sildenafil was effective in 85% of SCI patients, 74% of the patients on vardenafil and 72% of the patients on tadalafil. Sildenafil was associated with more rigid and longer lasting erections. Additionally, 50 mg of sildenafil was effective in 55% of patients compared to more than 70% of the patients on vardenafil and tadalafil requiring 20 mg for a similar response. Men who used tadalafil were able to achieve erections 24 hours after administration, improving overall satisfaction related to the possible spontaneity of sexual encounters. Del Popolo also evaluated the time/duration effectiveness of PDE5i sildenafil 50 mg versus tadalafil 10 mg (64). Tadalafil 10 mg significantly increased the percentage of successful intercourse attempts at 12–24 hours compared with sildenafil. One can suspect that vardenafil, which has a longer half-life than sildenafil, could offer a similar benefit but a study investigating this occurrence has yet to be performed.
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. 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.
When lifestyle changes alone don’t work, drug therapy (Viagra®, Cialis®, Levitra®, etc.) is normally the next step. Most of these medications work similarly to enhance a natural chemical in your body that relaxes the muscles in your penis. The goal of this medication is to increase your response to sexual stimulation by increasing the blood flow in your penis allowing you to get an erection.22
The medications are extremely effective, which is very good. And the medications are, for the most part, extremely well-tolerated. But there are, like with any medications, a potential downside. The one absolute downside to the use of any of these erection what we call PDE5 medications is if a patient is using a nitroglycerin medication. And nitroglycerins are used for heart disease and for angina, for the most part, although there are some recreational uses of nitrites. And that’s important because your blood vessels will dilate and your blood pressure will drop. And that is an absolute contraindication.
Erectile dysfunction in older men. Because erections primarily involve the blood vessels, it is not surprising that the most common causes in older men are conditions that block blood flow to the penis, such as atherosclerosis or diabetes. Another vascular cause may be a faulty vein, which lets blood drain too quickly from the penis. Other physical disorders, as well as hormonal imbalances and certain operations, may also result in erectile dysfunction.
The idea of using low-energy shock waves to treat erectile dysfunction comes from studies that show that these types of shocks help heart blood vessels regrow, a process called revascularization. Shock wave therapy may also work on the penis, and there have been some promising results, but it’s not currently an approved ED treatment. "It’s similar to the type of shock waves used to break up kidney stones, and it may cause revascularization,” says Bennett. “However, there are not yet any good controlled studies to recommend it to patients."
A cold slice of watermelon can do more than just satisfy thirst and hunger during the warm summer months; it can help with bedroom satisfaction. Citrulline, the amino acid found in high concentrations of watermelon, is found to improve blood flow to the penis. A 2011 study revealed men who suffered from mild to moderate ED and took L-citrulline supplementation showed an improvement with their erectile function and were very satisfied. Natural watermelon juice, or “nature’s Viagra,” can also be easier on the stomach, since taking pills like Viagra can cause nausea and diarrhea.
Alprostadil may be delivered via the urethra in the form of a pellet (MUSE) (107). This form of therapy has been trialed in SCI men with intermediate success (108). Bodner trialed MUSE dose escalation in SCI men and found 1,000 μg to be the most effective dose. Several men had hypotension when a constriction ring was not used in conjunction with the MUSE therapy.
Also called vacuum devices, penile pumps are devices that are placed over the penis to draw blood into the shaft. Once the vacuum creates an erection, the retaining band is slid down to the lower end of the penis and the pump is removed. An erection typically will last long enough for intercourse but your penis may be cold to the touch and the rubber band may restrict ejaculation.22
Finally, gene therapy and stem cell research has widened the frontier of ED treatment proposed as possibility to even reverse ED. Specifically, gene therapy pertains to repairing the cause of ED by restoring defective gene function and/or altering the expression of the mutant gene (32). Most of the available data on gene therapy are in the animal model. However, a phase I clinical trial in men with ED undergoing intracavernous injection with a DNA plasmid carrying the alpha-subunit of the corporal smooth muscle Maxi-K channel showed promise in increased erectile function based on IIEF assessment sustained throughout the 3-month study period (122).
MSA is a neurodegenerative disease of undetermined etiology, where ED is an early prominent sign occurring in 40% of men at the time of diagnosis (46,47). ED occurs in the majority of patients and the exact cause of it is unknown (48). Like PD, MSA likely affects the dopaminergic pathways within the brain essential for arousal (49). Orthostatic hypotension (OH) as a causal factor has been refuted by evidence that sildenafil can overcome reduced filling pressures, and the ED usually precedes the development of OH (46,49,50). Similar to other neurologic disorders that lead to ED, other disease related factors such as psychosocial stress, the burden of chronic illness, changed appearance, fatigue, decreased fine motor movement of fingers, immobility and diminished self-esteem due to loss of independence may contribute as well (51).
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.