The mechanisms by which testosterone plays a role in erectile function are not completely understood. A study evaluating the effect of testosterone on erections in surgically castrated rabbits and control animals, in which the rabbits’ intracavernosal pressures were compared after cavernosal nerve stimulation, determined that castrated rabbits had much lower pressures after stimulation than control rabbits did.  Notably, the pressures increased when castrated rabbits received exogenous testosterone replacement.
Causes of impotence are many and include heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Parkinson's disease, Peyronie's disease, substance abuse, sleep disorders, BPH treatments, relationship problems, blood vessel diseases (such as peripheral vascular disease and others), systemic disease, hormonal imbalance, and medications (such as blood pressure and heart medications).
The sympathetic pathway originates from the 11th thoracic to the 2nd lumbar spinal segments and goes via the white rami to enter the sympathetic chain ganglia. Subsequently nerves travel through the lumbar splanchnic to inferior mesenteric and superior hypogastric nerves to the pelvic plexus. The T10 through T12 segments are most often the origin of sympathetic fibers, and the sympathetic chain ganglia that innervate the penis are located in the sacral and caudal ganglia (3).
Palmer MR, Holt SK, Sarma AV, Dunn RL, Hotaling JM, Cleary PA, Braffett BH, Martin C, Herman WH, Jacobson AM, Wessells H; Diabetes Control and Complications Trial and Epidemiology of Diabetes Interventions and Complications Research Group. Longitudinal Patterns of Occurrence and Remission of Erectile Dysfunction in Men With Type 1 Diabetes. J Sex Med. 2017 Oct;14(10):1187-1194. Doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.07.012. Epub 2017 Aug 26.
On the horizon is gene therapy that would deliver genes that produce products or proteins that may not be functioning properly in the penile tissue of men with ED. Replacement of these proteins may result in improvement in erectile function. Experimental animal models have demonstrated improvement in erectile function with gene therapy. Human studies may also demonstrate success with this therapy. Gene therapy may take a long time for regulatory approval and public acceptance.
Sexual functioning involves a complex interaction among biologic, sociocultural, and psychological factors, and the complexity of this interaction makes it difficult to ascertain the clinical etiology of sexual dysfunction. Before any diagnosis of sexual dysfunction is made, problems that are explained by a nonsexual mental disorder or other stressors must first be addressed. Thus, in addition to the criteria for erectile disorder, the following must be considered:
With sex therapy, your counselor looks at the sexual problems you and your partner are having. Sex therapy works with problems such as performance anxiety, which means that you worry so much about whether you will be able to have sex that you are not able to. It also helps when you have erection problems that are not due to physical or drug problems, or premature ejaculation (you come too quickly). It may help you to reach orgasm or to learn to relax enough to avoid pain during sex. Counseling can help you to adjust to the treatment you and your doctor choose.
Nearly every primary care physician, internist and geriatrician now understand that many older men retain an interest in sexual activity as they age. Some primary care physicians think that sexual potency in older men is the norm, and that if it is lacking, it is ‘all in the head.’ This viewpoint has not been supported by current literature. The Massachusetts Male Aging Study (MMAS) found that 52% of men between 40 and 70 years old reported having some form of erectile dysfunction (ED).1 The reality is that ED is a natural part of ageing and that the prevalence increases with age. In the MMAS, they found that roughly 50% of men at 50 years old, 60% of men at 60 years old and 70% of men at 70 years old had ED. Thus, nearly all men who live long enough should develop ED. The myths that surround the problems of impotence or ED confound the attempts of patients to receive treatment and the attempts of physicians to help them.1
Examples of common neurologic conditions that can lead to ED include cerebral vascular accident, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury. Microvascular disease associated with diabetes is thought to compound the endothelial and neural injuries associated with this disease. Pelvic surgery may disrupt both neural and vascular pathways, resulting in ED.
One of the first steps is to distinguish between physiological and psychological ED. Determining whether involuntary erections are present is important in eliminating the possibility of psychogenic causes for ED. Obtaining full erections occasionally, such as nocturnal penile tumescence when asleep (that is, when the mind and psychological issues, if any, are less present), tends to suggest that the physical structures are functionally working. Similarly, performance with manual stimulation, as well as any performance anxiety or acute situational ED, may indicate a psychogenic component to ED.
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Watts and coworkers, in their review article, make several points about this ED/CAD nexus. Endothelial dysfunction is present in both CVD and ED, and is linked through the NO mechanism. The authors note that PDE5 inhibitors improve endothelial function and have a salutary effect on both CVD and ED. Both ED and cardiac disease respond to modifications in lifestyle as well as pharmacologic manipulation. These authors also report that the presence of ED gives the clinician an opportunity to assess CVD and prevention as well.20
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.
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.
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.
Melanocortin receptor agonists were found to induce erections serendipitously. A study investigating the dermatologic use of Melanotan-II (MT-II) was found to generate erections unexpectedly leading to the development of MTII derivatives for ED treatment (120). MT-II was initially used to induce pigment changes in the skin for artificial tanning but has been suspected to induce melanoma, however (121).
Think of erectile dysfunction as your body’s “check engine light.” The blood vessels in the penis are smaller than other parts of the body, so underlying conditions like blocked arteries, heart disease, or high blood pressure usually show up as ED before something more serious like a heart attack or stroke. ED is your body’s way of saying, “Something is wrong.” And the list of things that cause erectile dysfunction can include:
ED can also occur as a side effect of some medications, for example some high blood pressure medications such as certain diuretics and beta blockers. If you think that a medication you are taking has a negative effect on your sex life, you should discuss this with your prescribing doctor. Your doctor may be able to recommend an alternative treatment.
Sexual stimulation causes the release of neurotransmitters from cavernosal nerve endings and relaxation factors from endothelial cells lining the sinusoids. NOS produces NO from L-arginine, and this, in turn, produces other muscle-relaxing chemicals, such as cGMP and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which work via calcium channel and protein kinase mechanisms (see the image below). This results in the relaxation of smooth muscle in the arteries and arterioles that supply the erectile tissue, producing a dramatic increase in penile blood flow.
PDE5i for ED in patients with MS can be considered as reasonably effective and safe. Fowler et al. performed a randomized, multicenter, double-blind, flexible dose trial with open label extensions comparing sildenafil to placebo (75). A nearly 4-fold increase in effective erections was noted in the treatment arm, 96% vs. 24%. Sexual satisfaction and overall satisfaction were also improved in the treatment group based on IIEF scores, and quality of life assessments. Lombardi et al. evaluated tadalafil use in men with MS (71). Seventy eight percent of the men responded with improved erections, better quality of life with regards to sexual function, partner relationship and family life. Just less than half the men who responded to the tadalafil did so at the lower dosage of 10 mg. Subjects in either studies did not have any significant adverse side effects beyond flushing, and headache with PDE5i use.
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).
According to a review of all randomized controlled trials evaluating sildenafil by the American Urological Association (AUA) Consensus Panel on Erectile Dysfunction, 36% to 76% of patients receiving the drug were "able to achieve intercourse" during treatment. For tadalafil, four randomized controlled trials revealed that 11% to 47% of patients were "able to achieve intercourse." Similar efficacy has been observed with vardenafil, although studies are fewer.19 A meta-analysis published in 2013 clearly demonstrated increased efficacy over placebo for all PDE5 inhibitors.24 Head-to-head comparison suggested that tadalafil outperforms sildenafil on validated measures of erectile dysfunction, including the international index of erectile function and sexual encounter profile-2 and -3.