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.
An analysis of 14 studies involving more than 90,000 patients with ED confirmed the relation between ED and an increased risk of cardiovascular events and mortality. [56] Compared with patients without ED, those with ED had a 44% increased risk of cardiovascular events, a 25% increased risk of all-cause mortality, a 62% increased risk of MI, and a 39% increased risk of cerebrovascular events. Treatment of ED, either through lifestyle interventions or by pharmacologic means, may improve prognosis and reduce risk.
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.
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
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.
Hormone deficiency or hypogonadism, whether primary or secondary, has been thought to impact erectile function. Approximately a third of men in the European Male Aging Study demonstrated low testosterone, suggesting that hypogonadism is overrepresented among men with ED.11 Hormone deficiency, however, is less frequently the cause of ED than diabetes or vascular disease. Many entities with a strong relationship to ED also diminish bioavailable testosterone, including obesity, diabetes, and opioid use. Other hormones involved in testosterone metabolism or availability, like thyroid stimulating hormone and gonadotropins, also may impact erectile quality, presumably through regulating bioavailable testosterone. Understanding the relationship between testosterone and ED has been impaired by a lack of standardized measurement of this hormone and the cyclic nature of its release and consumption.
One study by Palmer and colleagues evaluated sildenafil use in SB males with thoracic lesions (76). A prospective, blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled, dose-escalation, crossover study in 17 patients with SB and ED was performed. All study participates took sets of tablet in groups, two sets of placebo, one of 25 mg, and the last 50 mg. Overall response to the tablet sets was measured by IIEF response and self-report of erectile rigidity. Patients reported that taking 50 mg of sildenafil led to improved erections, duration of erections, frequency of erections and level of confidence compared to sildenafil 25 mg and more significantly compared to placebo. Of the five patients who reported side effects, two experienced mild hematological changes that reverted to baseline after study completion.
Usually there will not be a specific treatment that will lead to the improvement of erectile dysfunction. However, there are treatments that will allow erections to happen and can be used to allow sexual activity to take place. There are three main types of treatments: non-invasive treatments such as tablet medicines and external devices (e.g. vacuum device); penile injections; or for men who have not had success with other treatments, surgery may be an option.
Commercials for drugs to improve “low T,” or testosterone, the male hormone, are now vying for airtime, but they address desire, not performance. "Male hormone is not an approved treatment for erectile dysfunction," notes Bennett. "It may be used to increase desire in men who have low testosterone, but it doesn’t improve blood flow to an erection." A doctor can do a blood test to check you for low testosterone, but it is a rare cause of ED. Hormone therapy with injections, patches, or gels applied to the skin may improve mood and sex drive, but it likely won’t fix any mechanical issues. Also, testosterone drugs should not be used by men with prostate cancer. Side effects include acne, breast enlargement, prostate enlargement, and fluid retention.
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.

"Medications that create blood flow to the penis can't help when an erection is blocked by the fear or anxiety of the fight-or-flight response,” says Feloney. “This type of erectile dysfunction probably has a lot to do with evolution — men didn't need an erection when a dinosaur was chasing them." The best way to treat erectile dysfunction caused by performance anxiety, depression, a poor relationship, or stress may be with a combination of ED drug treatment and sex therapy, individual therapy, or couples therapy from sexual health professionals.
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. [24] 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.
Communicate with your partner. Do you feel comfortable and accepted when it comes to your sexual performance? If you're worried about meeting your partner's too-high expectations or living up to some kind of standard, it will be harder to maintain an erection - it's called performance anxiety. If you think your partner's judgment might be hindering your ability to have satisfying sex, you need to communicate your needs and find ways to make your sexual environment more inviting.

One study by Palmer and colleagues evaluated sildenafil use in SB males with thoracic lesions (76). A prospective, blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled, dose-escalation, crossover study in 17 patients with SB and ED was performed. All study participates took sets of tablet in groups, two sets of placebo, one of 25 mg, and the last 50 mg. Overall response to the tablet sets was measured by IIEF response and self-report of erectile rigidity. Patients reported that taking 50 mg of sildenafil led to improved erections, duration of erections, frequency of erections and level of confidence compared to sildenafil 25 mg and more significantly compared to placebo. Of the five patients who reported side effects, two experienced mild hematological changes that reverted to baseline after study completion.


The vascular processes that produce an erection are controlled by the nervous system and certain prescription medications may have the side effect of interfering with necessary nerve signals. Among the possible culprits are a variety of stimulants, sedatives, diuretics, antihistamines, and drugs to treat high blood pressure, cancer, or depression. But never stop a medication unless your doctor tells you to. In addition, alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, such as marijuana, may contribute to the dysfunction.
Oral medicines: The best known ED medications are the Big Three: Viagra (sildenafil citrate, made by Pfizer, Inc.), Levitra (vardenafil HCl, made by Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline), and Cialis (tadalafil, made by Eli Lilly). The three are chemically very similar, and all have proven very effective. Because they are effective, convenient, and relatively inexpensive (about nine dollars per pill), these medicines have become the treatment of choice for most men experiencing ED.
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

A vacuum erection device helps draw blood into the penis by applying negative pressure. This type of device is sometimes referred to as penis pump and may be used just prior to sexual intercourse. Several types of FDA approved vacuum therapy devices are available under prescription. When pharmacological methods fail, a purpose-designed external vacuum pump can be used to attain erection, with a separate compression ring fitted to the base of the penis to maintain it. These pumps should be distinguished from other penis pumps (supplied without compression rings) which, rather than being used for temporary treatment of impotence, are claimed to increase penis length if used frequently, or vibrate as an aid to masturbation. More drastically, inflatable or rigid penile implants may be fitted surgically.
Six herbs for treating erectile dysfunction Erectile dysfunction can be an embarrassing condition that can leave men unable to achieve an erection or a full orgasm. This MNT Knowledge Center article talks about six different herbal supplements that could help people with erectile dysfunction, including ginkgo biloba, horny goat weed, and red ginseng. Read now
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. [24] 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.

Oral therapies via the PDE5i sildenafil, vardenafil, and tadalafil have been proven to be generally safe and effective in select NED populations. The majority of the treatment effectiveness data has been generated in the SCI population. Data regarding the use of PDE5i outside of the SCI population is lacking (58). Furthermore, the ED that exists in the population with neurologic disorders is often multifactorial and may be caused by psychogenic, psychosocial, hormonal, medication-related and disability-related factors. A careful evaluation of each patient must be performed to isolate these factors prior to initiating vasoactive therapy.
Induction of erection occurs after stimulation of the cavernous and pelvic nerve plexus. Conversely, stimulation of the sympathetic trunk leads to detumescence. The reflex erectile response requires that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. Tactile and sensory signals are received by the somatic sensory pathways and integrate with parasympathetic nuclei within the sacral spinal cord (S2-4) leading to induction of erection via cholinergic signaling. These reflexogenic erections remain intact with upper motor neuron injuries. Psychogenic erections do not require that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. In a cat models, spinal cord removal below L4/L5 led to absence of a reflexogenic erection but stimulation of the medial preoptic area (MPOA) or placement near a female cat in heat led to erection (5,6). Psychogenic erections occur via induction of central pathways traveling from the brain through the sympathetic chain. Non-penile sensory pathways induced by sight, sound, touch and smell travel through the MPOA to the erection centers within the cord T11-L2, and S2-S4 to induce erections (7). When a sacral lower motor neuron injury is present in men, below T12 these types of erections are more likely to occur (8). Spinal cord lesions above T9 are not associated with psychogenic erections (9). Rigidity of erections is less with psychogenic erections because the thoracolumbar sympathetic outflow may contain a decreased concentration of neurons compared to the parasympathetic outflow from the sacral spinal cord.
Diabetes is an example of an endocrine disease that can cause a person to experience impotence. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to utilize the hormone insulin. One of the side effects associated with chronic diabetes is nerve damage. This affects penis sensations. Other complications associated with diabetes are impaired blood flow and hormone levels. Both of these factors can contribute to impotence.
Vascular damage may result from radiation therapy to the pelvis and prostate in the treatment of prostate cancer. [36] Both the blood vessels and the nerves to the penis may be affected. Radiation damage to the crura of the penis, which are highly susceptible to radiation damage, can induce ED. Data indicate that 50% of men undergoing radiation therapy lose erectile function within 5 years after completing therapy; fortunately, some respond to one of the PDE5 inhibitors.

A CVA can occur anywhere through the brain, midbrain, brainstem and spinal cord leading to varying degrees of SD depending on location. A decline in libido, erection and ejaculation are frequent in men who have had a CVA, with a reported prevalence of ED that varies from 17% to 48% (28,29). Right hemispheric infarcts seem to affect erections more so than left-sided ones. The exact effects of CVA on sexual function are complex and multifactorial, as disability, psychological and emotional status can affect sexual function aside from the location of the CVA.
There are many effective treatments for impotence. The most popular is a class of drugs called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors. These include sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra), tadalafil (Cialis) and avanafil (STENDRA). These drugs are taken in pill form. They work in most men. But they are less effective in men with neurological causes of impotence.
Clinical studies have suggested that these devices are effective and acceptable to a large number of patients with ED of varying causes, including psychogenic erectile failure. These devices are safe and can restore a man’s ability to achieve penetrative intercourse, with one study suggesting nearly 95% success with adequate instruction and support.30 However, satisfaction with this treatment modality typically wanes with time, as patients report dissatisfaction with how cumbersome or unnatural the devices are to use, hinging or buckling of the erection with thrusting, and dissatisfaction with the fact that the erection is ischemic and therefore cold, which can be off-putting to the partner.

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.


Specially designed vacuum devices to produce erections have been used successfully for many years. Vacuum devices are safe, relatively inexpensive, and reliable. Vacuum devices do not require surgery. Vacuum devices are available over the counter or by prescription. It is important to make sure that the vacuum device have a mechanism to prevent too high of a vacuum (negative pressure).

There are risks to prosthetic surgery and patients are counselled before the procedure. If there is a post-operative infection, the implant will likely be removed. The devices are reliable, but in the case of mechanical malfunction, the device or a part of the device will need to be replaced surgically. If a penile prosthesis is removed, other non-surgical treatments may no longer work.
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