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.
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.
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.
Oral PDE5i remains the first line treatment for NED from SCI. Three of the four PDE5i currently available in the U.S., avanafil excluded, have been investigated in the SCI, and all of the more recent studies have shown improvements in erectile function based on IIEF score compared to placebo when included (59-63). Other studies have also shown significant improvements in the IIEF score when compared to baseline (64-69). Furthermore, treatment efficacy when compared to placebo occurs despite LOI or American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) score characterizing impairment related to the injury (59,61).
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Performance anxiety can be another cause of impotence. If a person wasn’t able to achieve an erection in the past, he may fear he won’t be able to achieve an erection in the future. A person may also find he can’t achieve an erection with a certain partner. Someone with ED related to performance anxiety may be able to have full erections when masturbating or when sleeping, yet he isn’t able to maintain an erection during intercourse.
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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.
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.
Moemen et al. compared the effectiveness and satisfaction associated with use of several ED therapies including sildenafil alone, intracavernosal injections (ICI) followed by sildenafil after ICI discontinuation and vacuum erections devices (VED) followed by sildenafil therapy after VED discontinuation (60). Seventy percent of men receiving vasoactive medications preferred sildenafil to ICI, even though rigidity was superior in the ICI group. All men using VEDs were dissatisfied with that form of therapy.
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.