Physical causes may include the narrowing of the blood vessels caused by hypertension (high blood pressure), nutritional deficiencies, certain prescription treatments and medications for enlarged prostate or prostate cancer, excess drinking, obesity, heavy smoking, kidney issues, thyroid problems, hormonal changes due to aging, injury, or surgery, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels.
It is essential to discuss erectile dysfunction with your doctor, so any serious underlying causes can be excluded and treatment options can be discussed. Many men are embarrassed discussing this issue with their doctor, or even their partner. Open communication with your doctor, and in your relationship, is important for effectively managing this common problem.
This category of treatments includes external vacuum therapies: devices that go around the penis and produce erections by increasing the flow of blood in, while constricting the flow out. Such devices imitate a natural erection, and do not interfere with orgasm. External vacuum therapy mechanisms are approximately 95 percent successful in causing and sustaining an erection. All are portable, and costs range between $200-$500, covered under most insurance plans and Medicare Part B.
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
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.
Impotence, also known as erectile dysfunction or ED, is a condition in which a man is unable to get or hold an erection long enough to have a satisfactory sex life. Impotence is a common problem, affecting up to half of Australian men between the ages of 40 and 70 years. The risk of developing erectile dysfunction increases as you get older.In the past, doctors considered impotence to be a mainly psychological problem, caused by performance anxiety or stress. Now, doctors know that many cases of impotence have a physical cause, which usually can be treated. Often, a combination of physical and psychological factors contributes to erectile dysfunction.Physical causes of impotencePhysical causes of impotence can include:problems with blood to flow into and out of the penis;damage to the nerves that send signals from the body’s central nervous system to the penis; and, more rarely,a deficiency in testosterone or other hormones.Some medicines can contribute to impotence, as can some types of surgery and radiotherapy treatments.Blocked blood vessels to the penisA very common cause of impotence is when blood flow into the penis is reduced. This can be due to atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries. In atherosclerosis, the arteries are clogged and narrowed, resulting in reduced blood flow.Risk factors for atherosclerosis include:high cholesterol;high blood pressure;obesity;sleep apnoea;diabetes; andsmoking.If your erection problems are caused by atherosclerosis, there is a chance that the arteries in other parts of your body (e.g. the coronary arteries that supply your heart) are also affected by atherosclerosis. In fact, erection problems may be the first sign that you are at risk of coronary heart disease.Because the arteries to the penis are narrower than those to the heart, you may develop symptoms of erectile dysfunction before you experience any symptoms of heart disease, such as angina. So seeing your doctor about erection problems may be important for your overall physical health.Impotence can also be caused by a blood clot that prevents enough blood from flowing into the penis to cause an erection.Venous leakageIn some men, blood can flow in to the penis easily, but the problem is that it leaks out again, so an erection cannot be sustained. This is called venous leakage. Doctors aren’t certain of the cause of venous leakage, but they can perform surgery to help repair it.Medicines that can cause impotenceMany medicines can cause erection problems as a side effect, including:diuretics (sometimes known as ‘water tablets’ - often used for high blood pressure);high blood pressure medications;cholesterol-lowering medicines (including statins);some types of antipsychotics;antidepressants;cancer treatments;some medicines used to treat heartburn and stomach ulcers;antihistamines;some pain medicines; andcertain epilepsy medications.If you experience impotence after starting a new medication, tell your doctor, who may be able to prescribe a different medicine for you. Don’t stop taking a medicine without first consulting your doctor. You should also tell your doctor about any over-the-counter medicines or complementary remedies you may be taking.The following table contains a list of specific medicines that may cause or contribute to erectile dysfunction. This list may not cover all types of medicines that can cause erectile dysfunction, so always ask your doctor if you are in doubt. Also, for some of these medicines ED is a very rare side effect. Most men taking these medicines do not experience erectile dysfunction.Medicines that may cause erectile dysfunctionType of medicineExamplesACE inhibitorscaptopril (Capoten), enalapril (Renitec), perindopril (Perindo), ramipril (Tritace), and othersAntidepressantsamitriptyline (Endep), clomipramine (Anafranil), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Aropax), sertraline (Zoloft), venlafaxine (Altven, Efexor), and othersAnti-epilepticsclonazepam (Rivotril), pregabalin (Lyrica)Antifungalsitraconazole (Sporanox)Anti-ulcer drugscimetidine (Magicul), nizatidine (Tazac), ranitidine (Zantac), and othersBeta-blockerspropranolol (Inderal), metoprolol (Betaloc, Lopresor), and othersOther blood pressure-lowering medicinesclonidine (Catapres), lercanidipine/enalapril (Zan-Extra), losartan (Cozaar), perindopril/amlodipine (Coveram), olmesartan/amlodipine (Sevikar), telmisartan/amlodipine (Twynsta), valsartan/hydrochlorothiazide (Co-Diovan)Calcium-channel blockersdiltiazem (Cardizem), felodipine (Plendil), nifedipine (Adalat)Cholesterol-lowering drugsatorvastatin (Lipitor), ezetimibe/simvastatin (Vytorin), fluvastatin (Lescol, Vastin), gemfibrozil (Ausgem), pravastatin (Pravachol), simvastatin (APO-simvastatin, Lipex, Zocor), and othersDiuretics ('water tablets')bumetanide (Burinex), chlorthalidone (Hygroton), spironolactone (Aldactone), and othersSchizophrenia drugsamisulpride (Solian, Sulprix), haloperidol (Haldol, Serenace), olanzapine (Lanzek, Ozin, Zypine, Zyprexa), paliperidone (Invega), risperidone (Rispa, Risperdal), ziprasidone (Zeldox)Combination cholesterol-lowering and anti-hypertensiveamlodipine/atorvastatin (Caduet, Cadatin)Pain medicinesfentanyl (Denpax, Durogesic), hydromorphone (Jurnista), morphine (Momex SR, MS Contin), oxycodone (OxyContin, OxyNorm, Targin), tramadolMiscellaneousoestrogens, antiandrogens, anticancer drugs and some chemotherapy treatments, baclofen (Clofen, Lioresal); cyproterone (Androcur, Cyprohexal, Cyprostat), degarelix (Firmagon), etoricoxib (Arcoxia), finasteride (Proscar and Propecia), flutamide (Flutamin), rotigotine (Neupro), triptorelin (Diphereline)*The names in brackets are just some examples of the trade names each specific medicine is marketed under in Australia. The medicine may also be known by other trade names.Diabetes and erectile dysfunctionMen who have diabetes have a higher risk of developing impotence than other men. Diabetes contributes to impotence because it can damage blood vessels and cause a type of nerve damage known as peripheral neuropathy.Hormones and impotenceLow levels of the male hormone, testosterone, are more commonly linked to a lowered sex drive, rather than impotence itself. Only a small percentage of cases of impotence are caused by hormone deficiency.Low testosterone levels may be the result of a condition called hypogonadism, in which the testicles don’t produce enough testosterone. More rarely, low testosterone can be caused by the pituitary (a small gland at the base of the brain) not secreting sufficient hormones to stimulate the testes to produce testosterone. The pituitary is also sometimes affected by small benign (non-cancerous) tumours that secrete prolactin, another hormone that can cause impotence.Mildly decreased levels of testosterone are often not due to specific testicular or pituitary problems, but rather stress or depression. In this situation, testosterone replacement is rarely of any benefit.Other hormone problems, including thyroid disease, can also cause impotence.Prostate cancer and erectile dysfunctionThe advanced stages of prostate cancer can affect the nerves and arteries that are vital for an erection.Radiation treatment for prostate cancer can harm the erectile tissues of the penis, and prostate cancer surgery can cause nerve or artery damage to the penis.Treatment for advanced prostate cancer often includes medicines that counteract testosterone, and commonly cause erectile dysfunction as well as loss of sexual interest.Peyronie’s diseasePeyronie’s disease is an uncommon condition that affects a man’s sex life because his penis curves abnormally and causes pain when he has an erection. He might also be unable to have a hard erection. The curvature of the penis is caused by a scar, called a plaque, that forms in the penis.Other physical causes of impotenceSeveral other factors and conditions can contribute to erectile dysfunction, including the following.Depression. Many men find that when they’re suffering from depression, they lose interest in sex and can’t get or keep an erection. Asking your doctor for treatments for depression may help alleviate your erection problems as well.Smoking contributes to vascular disease (disease of the blood vessels), so it can contribute to erectile dysfunction by affecting blood flow to the penis. Giving up smoking often has a beneficial effect on erectile function.Excessive alcohol use. Alcoholism can cause permanent nerve damage, resulting in impotence. This nerve damage is called peripheral neuropathy. Long-term alcohol use can impair the liver’s ability to function, resulting in a hormone imbalance in which a man has too much of the female sex hormone, oestrogen. On a day-to-day level, alcohol dulls the central nervous system, adversely affecting sexual response.Illicit drug use. Illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, and amphetamines act on the central nervous system, impairing the body’s ability to respond sexually.Certain exercises. Nerve and artery damage can be caused by prolonged cycling, rodeo riding, or use of a rowing machine, resulting in the inability to get an erection. Often, minimising the use of hard bicycle seats and exercise machine seats, as well as correct positioning of the seat, will help restore sexual function.Surgery to organs near the nerve pathways of the penis, such as the bladder, rectum and prostate, can cause nerve or artery damage to the penis, resulting in the inability to have an erection.Injuries. Impotence can be caused by spinal cord injury; injury to your sex organs; or a pelvic fracture, which can cause damage to the nerves of the penis, or damage the blood vessels, resulting in reduced blood flow to the penis.Conditions affecting the nervous system. Multiple sclerosis (MS) and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease, can damage the nerves involved in erections.Psychological causes of impotenceMost cases of impotence have physical causes, but, in some men, psychological factors are the main contributors to impotence.Impotence that’s triggered by psychological factors is more common in men who are sexually inexperienced. Psychological erectile dysfunction may only occur when you’re with just one particular person. You’re also more likely to have morning erections, and be able to have an erection when you masturbate, than men whose impotence has a physical cause.Here are some psychological factors that can have an impact on your erections.Stress and anxietyWhen you’re stressed and focusing on other issues apart from sex, you might find that you don’t want to have sex as often and there might be a drop in your ability to perform when you do try. You might find that tackling the source of your stress can have benefits in the bedroom as well.Fear of failureAnxiety about your sexual prowess (commonly called performance anxiety) can, in itself, contribute to failure. By putting pressure on yourself, you become too anxious to get an adequate erection.Most men experience isolated episodes of erectile failure. Even when the transient physical cause has passed, anxiety that it may recur is sufficient to prevent erection. Anxiety, whether about something specifically sexual or part of a wider anxiety syndrome, is never helpful to good sexual function.Problems with your relationship and impotenceImpotence may be a manifestation of a poor relationship, or a problematic time in a relationship. Sexual boredom, tension or anger among partners, and lack of intimacy and communication are all possible triggers of erectile dysfunction. In these cases, seeing a counsellor may help.It’s worth remembering that impotence is a complex medical condition, which may have more than one cause. For example, if impotence is the result of a side effect of medicine or an underlying disease, the anxiety caused by lack of performance may perpetuate the erectile dysfunction even after the physical cause has been dealt with.Almost any chronic (ongoing) physical or mental health disorder, including those with no direct effect on penile nerves or blood supply, can have a powerful effect on sexuality, sexual self-image and erectile function.If you’re worried about your sexual response or the quality of your erections, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor, who has access to treatments that can help. Last Reviewed: 16 December 2016
There are so many potential reasons a man might develop erectile dysfunction (ED), it's nearly impossible to generalize the best ways to treat it. What works for one man may not work for another simply because they are having problems for different reasons. That said, it may encouraging to hear that there are a variety of options that may be considered, from psychological counseling to lifestyle changes, medications to treatments and devices.
As is true in so many medical conditions, lifestyle modifications, considered first-line therapy, can have a salutary effect in ED management, and men should be encouraged to make the necessary changes to the benefit of their sexual function and to their overall health as well. Despite the benefits of behaviour modification, men presenting with ED want the physician to help with measures that can have an immediate impact.
Surgical intervention for a number of conditions may remove anatomical structures necessary to erection, damage nerves, or impair blood supply. Erectile dysfunction is a common complication of treatments for prostate cancer, including prostatectomy and destruction of the prostate by external beam radiation, although the prostate gland itself is not necessary to achieve an erection. As far as inguinal hernia surgery is concerned, in most cases, and in the absence of postoperative complications, the operative repair can lead to a recovery of the sexual life of people with preoperative sexual dysfunction, while, in most cases, it does not affect people with a preoperative normal sexual life.
It appears that testosterone has NOS-independent pathways as well. In one study, castrated rats were implanted with testosterone pellets and then divided into a group that received an NOS inhibitor (L-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester [L-NAME]) and a control group that received no enzyme.  The castrated rats that were given testosterone pellets and L-NAME still had partial erections, a result suggesting the presence of a pathway independent of NOS activity.
The neurovascular events that ultimately occur result in the inhibition of adrenergic tone and the release of the nonadrenergic, noncholinergic neurotransmitter, nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is believed to be released from nonadrenergic, noncholinergic nerves and endothelial cells. It subsequently stimulates the guanylate cyclase enzyme system in penile smooth muscle. This results in increased levels of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) and ultimately in smooth muscle relaxation, enhancement of arterial inflow, and veno-occlusion, producing adequate firmness for sexual activity.
Erectile dysfunction may be an unpleasant condition that no one really wants to talk about, failing to acknowledge it won’t make the problem go away. Your best defense against health problems like this is to learn everything you can about it so you can tackle the problem at the root. If you’re ready to stop living in embarrassment about your sexual function, become an advocate for yourself and your own health and talk to your doctor.
Psychological factors — Psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, guilt or fear can sometimes cause sexual problems. At one time, these factors were thought to be the major cause of impotence. Doctors now know that physical factors cause impotence in most men with the problem. However, embarrassment or "performance anxiety" can make a physical problem worse.
Nerves originating in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia innervate the penis. There are autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic), and somatic separate and integrated pathways. The autonomic pathways neurons originate in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively. They merge to form the cavernous nerves that travel alongside the prostate, enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to affect the neurovascular events required for tumescence and detumescence. The somatic nerves send sensory information from the penile skin, glans, and urethra via the dorsal penile nerve and pudendal nerve to the spinal cord. The somatic nerves also initiate contraction of the ischio- and bulbocavernosus muscles.
Medication — When a medication is the cause of the dysfunction, a change in the medication may help. Men and women with hormone deficiencies may benefit from hormone shots, pills, or creams. For men, drugs, including sildenafil (Viagra®), tadalafil (Cialis®), vardenafil (Levitra®, Staxyn®), and avanafil (Stendra®) may help improve sexual function by increasing blood flow to the penis.
Can erectile dysfunction be reversed? Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a very common issue, and it can usually be reversed with lifestyle changes, counseling, medications, or surgery. While short-term treatments are available, addressing the underlying cause will usually resolve the condition. Learn about causes and effective methods of reversing ED here. Read now
Martha K Terris, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Cancer Society, American College of Surgeons, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Urological Association, Association of Women Surgeons, New York Academy of Sciences, Society of Government Service Urologists, Society of University Urologists, Society of Urology Chairpersons and Program Directors, and Society of Women in Urology
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
There are myriad factors, both mental and physical, that may contribute to your erectile dysfunction symptoms. Some of the most common impotence causes include diabetes, hypertension, prostate problems, low testosterone and obesity, which can not only put a damper on your sexual enjoyment, but play a key role in your total male vitality, too. (Even medications that are often prescribed to control some of the aforementioned issues can be behind some of the frustrating symptoms of ED.) There are factors like depression, stress and anxiety that can leave you longing for your glory days, and the coping mechanisms like alcohol and tobacco that can make a roll in the sheets less satisfying for you and your partner. We’ll listen to you with a compassionate ear and thoughtfully consider what may be contributing to your ED symptoms, then draw up your perfect, personalized treatment.
Erectile dysfunction in younger men, unless they're diabetic or have suffered some unusually cruel injury, is generally caused by stress, rather than any physical condition. High levels of cortisol or adrenaline (both byproducts of stress) in the body stymie the supply of oxygen to the organs, thereby decreasing blood flow to the penis. And the penis without blood has as much chance of getting up as a balloon without air. Which is why I found it easier to have sex with people I wasn't emotionally invested in: Once the fear of rejection is removed, sex is no big deal.
Alprostadil is injected into the side of penis with a very fine needle. It's of great value to have the first shot in the doctor's office before doing this on your own. Self-injection lessons should be given in your doctor's office by an experienced professional. The success rate for getting an erection firm enough to have sex is as high as 85% with this treatment. Many men who do not respond to oral PDE5 inhibitors can be ‘rescued' with ICI.