As recently as two decades ago, doctors tended to blame erectile dysfunction on psychological problems or, with older men, on the normal aging process. Today, the pendulum of medical opinion has swung away from both notions. While arousal takes longer as a man ages, chronic erectile dysfunction warrants medical attention. Moreover, the difficulty is often not psychological in origin. Today, urologists believe that physical factors underlie the majority of cases of persistent erectile dysfunction in men over age 50.
Since sexual arousal is a complex process involving hormones, emotions, nerves, muscles, blood vessels and the brain, a malfunction in any of these can lead to ED. Stress, exhaustion and psychological issues can also contribute, and anxiety over maintaining an erection can actually make it harder to attain. In short, any condition that inhibits blood flow to the penis can lead to ED.
Ultimately, PDE5i have had a significant impact on the treatment of ED in men with SCI. The ease of use and tolerability of the medication has also led to improved satisfaction and quality of life that had been previously affected by SD. Head to head trials evaluating specific PDE5i within the SCI population are required to further elucidate drug preference. PDE5i should be considered first line therapy, however men with high thoracic and cervical lesions should be warned about an increased chance of dizziness with sildenafil and possibly other PDE5i use.
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
ED exists in approximately 75% of men with SB and is dependent upon the level of the neurologic lesion (54). The level of the neurologic lesions usually corresponds to sensation and penile sensation indicates pudendal nerve signaling. With absent sacral reflexes ED is variable. Furthermore, Diamond et al. reported that 64% of men with lesions below T10 obtained erections versus 14% with a lesion above T10 (55). It has also been suggested that ED may be underreported due to lack of sexual education even in men without associated cognitive impairment (56).
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.
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.
Recognized risk factors for ED include cardiovascular disease (CVD) (hypertension, atherosclerosis, and hyperlipidemia), diabetes, depression, alcohol use, smoking, pelvic/perineal surgery or trauma, neurologic disease, obesity, pelvic radiation, and Peyronie’s disease. One study suggested that the relationship between arterial disease and ED is very strong, with 49% (147 of 300) of patients with coronary artery disease noted on cardiac catheterization reporting significant erectile dysfunction.6 Endothelial dysfunction has been indicated as the pathophysiologic mechanism responsible for both CVD and ED.7 The Boston Area Community Health survey demonstrated a dose-response between smoking and incidence of erectile dysfunction.8 Animal studies have demonstrated both smooth-muscle disruption and decreased production of neural nitric oxide synthase in cigarette-exposed animals.9
Taking one of these tablets will not automatically produce an erection. Sexual stimulation is needed first to cause the release of nitric oxide from your penile nerves. These medications amplify that signal, allowing some men to function normally. Oral erectile dysfunction medications are not aphrodisiacs, will not cause excitement and are not needed in men who get normal erections.
There are relatively few contraindications to the use of vacuum devices. Some conditions can predispose to priapism or perhaps bleeding with constriction, such as sickle cell disease, polycythemia, and other blood dyscrasias. Patients taking anticoagulants can safely use vacuum constriction devices but need to accept a higher risk of bleeding (ecchymosis). Good manual dexterity is also needed to use the device; if manual dexterity is impaired, a willing sexual partner can learn to apply the device.
The severity of ED has been correlated with the extent of CVD. Banks et al reported that the risk of future CV events increased progressively according to ED severity.28 This was shown in both men with and without known CVD at baseline and after controlling for confounders. Solomon and colleagues found an inverse correlation between international index of erectile function (IIEF) scores and plaque burden seen on coronary angiography.29 In addition, Yaman et al demonstrated a significant correlation between ED severity on IIEF questionnaires and coronary artery calcification.30
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.
Besides PDE5 inhibitors and among second-line therapies are VCDs which are clear plastic chambers placed over the penis, tightened against the lower abdomen with a mechanism to create a vacuum inside the chamber. This directs blood into the penis. If an adequate erection occurs inside the chamber, the patient slips a small constriction band off the end of the VCD and onto the base of the penis. An erection beyond 30 min is not recommended. These devices can be a bit cumbersome, but are very safe.40
The main surgical treatment of ED involves insertion of a penile implant (also called penile prostheses). Because penile vascular surgery is not recommended for aging males who have failed oral PDE5 inhibitors, ICI or IU therapies, implants are the next step for these patients. Although placement of a penile implant is a surgery which carries risks, they have the highest rates of success and satisfaction among ED treatment options.