An occasional problem achieving an erection is nothing to worry about. But failure to do so more than 50% of the time at any age may indicate a condition that needs treatment. About 40% of men in their 40s report at least occasional problems getting and maintaining erections. So do more than half (52%) of men aged 40 to 70, and about 70% of men in their 70s.
While studies are limited, it has been shown that male sexual dysfunction can also negatively impact the sexual function of female partners. A study comparing the sexual function of women with partners with erectile dysfunction to those without showed that sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, pain and total score were significantly lower in those who had partners with erectile dysfunction. Later in that study, a large proportion of the men with erectile dysfunction underwent treatment. Following treatment, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain were all significantly increased. It was concluded that female sexual function is impacted by male erection status, which may improve following treatment of male sexual dysfunction.
If a trial of oral ED therapy and withdrawal of offending medications prove to be ineffective in restoring erectile function, it is appropriate for most primary care practitioners to consider referral to a specialist for additional evaluation and discussion of alternative treatment options. These include intracavernous injection therapy, vacuum constriction devices, intraurethral therapy, and possible surgery.
Size matters, so get slim and stay slim. A trim waistline is one good defense — a man with a 42-inch waist is 50% more likely to have ED than one with a 32-inch waist. Losing weight can help fight erectile dysfunction, so getting to a healthy weight and staying there is another good strategy for avoiding or fixing ED. Obesity raises risks for vascular disease and diabetes, two major causes of ED. And excess fat interferes with several hormones that may be part of the problem as well.
When other treatments haven’t helped, a penile implant may be the right solution. A penile implant is a medical device that is surgically placed into a penis to mimic the look and performance of a natural erection9. Implants are custom-fitted to your anatomy. Sensitivity and the ability to ejaculate aren’t typically affected either, so you’ll be able to have an orgasm normally (unless you have a medical condition that prevents this)7.
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Erections are initiated and maintained via integration of afferent inputs in the supra sacral regions of the central nervous system. Regions of the brain cited to have key roles in the integration of signals include the medial amygdala, MPOA, periaqueductal gray matter, paraventricular nucleus (PVN), and ventral tegmentum among others (16). Studies in animal models, particularly in rats, have been paramount in identifying these key areas of signal integration and control. Electrostimulation of the MPOA, PVN and hippocampus lead to erection and lesions in these areas may prevent erection (17). Marson et al. injected labeled pseudorabies virus into rat corpora cavernosa and traced them to neurons in the spinal cord, brain stem and hypothalamus (18). Stimulation of the rat dorsal nerve led to increased firing in the MPOA not found elsewhere (19). Axonal tracing in animals have shows direct projections from the hypothalamus to the lumbosacral autonomic erection centers. Oxytocin and vasopressin have been identified as central neurotransmitters within the hypothalamic nuclei and may have a role in penile erection (17). These signaling studies identifying key areas of erectile response integration may explain how ED is associated with cerebrovascular accident (CVA), Parkinson’s, epilepsy and MS.
A variety of lifestyle choices can affect the ability to achieve and maintain an erection, so preventing ED is possible in some cases. Men are encouraged to manage chronic health problems with their doctors and to exercise regularly. They also should avoid smoking and excess alcohol and get help for anxiety or depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The PDE5 inhibitors sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra) and tadalafil (Cialis) are prescription drugs which are taken orally.:20–21 Additionally, a cream combining alprostadil with the permeation enhancer DDAIP has been approved in Canada as a first line treatment for erectile dysfunction. Penile injections, on the other hand, can involve one of the following medications: papaverine, phentolamine, and prostaglandin E1, also known as alprostadil.:25
Since endothelial dysfunction, CVD and ED are closely associated in epidemiological studies, the question for clinicians is whether to recommend the man presenting with ED undergo a cardiovascular (CV) evaluation. Clearly, based on numerous studies, ED can be considered at least a ‘marker’ for possible further vascular disease or CVD.15 In their report, Vlachopoulos and coworkers make the point that the man presenting with ED, the clinician, is offered an opportunity to attempt to improve the health of the man by addressing lifestyle modification, and consider further vascular evaluation owing to the clear relationship between endothelial dysfunction, ED and CVD.19
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.
There are also alternative treatments, such as using a penis pump or a penile injection. Penis pumps work by creating a vacuum and thereby causing more blood to flow to your penis. Penile injections need to be used shortly before intercourse. They contain a medication which widens your blood vessels. A doctor’s prescription is needed for the injections.
These medications don’t work for everyone but they are easy to use and work for around 60% of people who try them. They work by making it easier to get an erection by reducing the effect of (inhibiting) the chemical PDE-5. This chemical is used in the body to make sure there isn’t too much blood in the penis during an erection, but if you have erectile dysfunction then this chemical ends up over-compensating.
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.