Somatomotor penile innervation originates in Onuf’s nucleus in the S2-4 spinal segments. These nerves travel to the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus muscles when activated lead to contraction necessary for the rigid-erection phase. Several animal studies show that stimulation of the somatomotor pathways may also be under sympathetic control, and adrenergic stimulation may lead to contraction of these muscles during ejaculation (13,14). Somatomotor spinal reflexes may also be initiated by genital stimulation. For instance, the well-known bulbocavernosus reflex is evidence this reflex exists; however the clinical significance of its absence in the neurological assessment of ED has not been substantiated (15).
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.[18] 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.
Following a detailed discussion about the history of erectile dysfunction and its risk factors, your doctor will examine the testicles and penis to help determine the cause of erectile dysfunction. Your doctor will check reflexes and pulses in the area to see if problems with blood vessels or nerves are contributing to the erectile dysfunction. If necessary, your doctor will order tests to help diagnose erectile dysfunction.
Can’t or don’t want to take ED drugs? The vacuum pump method is the next most common choice among men with erectile dysfunction who pass on pills, says Dr. Bennett. To create an erection, you place a plastic cylinder over the penis and pump the air out of the cylinder to force blood to flow into the penis. An elastic ring that you slide onto the base of your penis holds the erection. This ED treatment device is effective for about 75 percent of men. Side effects include numbness, bruising, and weak ejaculation — and the ring must be removed after 30 minutes.
• Medications: About 25 percent of ED cases are caused by drugs. Many medications, including common medicines prescribed for diabetes and its complications, can cause ED. The most common offenders are blood pressure drugs, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, appetite suppressants, and cimetidine (an ulcer drug). In addition, over-the-counter medications, including certain eye drops and nose drops, have been associated with ED. That does not mean you should stop taking these medications! Rather, you should discuss them with your doctor to determine whether a different dosage, an alternate medicine, or additional treatments will resolve the ED.

The information shared on our websites is information developed solely from internal experts on the subject matter, including medical advisory boards, who have developed guidelines for our patient content. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.
Do erectile dysfunction exercises help? Many people have erectile dysfunction (ED), but it is often possible to reverse this with exercises to strengthen muscles in the area. These include pelvic floor exercises. ED can often be due to lifestyle factors including obesity and low physical activity levels. Learn more about exercises for ED here. Read now
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.

Between 10 and 88% of patients diagnosed with cancer experience sexual problems following diagnosis and treatment. The prevalence varies according to the location and type of cancer, and the treatment modalities used. Sexuality may be affected by chemotherapy, alterations in body image due to weight change, hair loss or surgical disfigurement, hormonal changes, and cancer treatments that directly affect the pelvic region.
The Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial was a landmark study by Thompson et al that prospectively assessed the time to developing CVD after the diagnosis of ED. There were 4247 men with no ED at study entry; 2420 developed incident ED (defined as the first report of ED of any grade) over 5 years. Those men that developed ED had a 1.45-fold higher probability of experiencing a CV event compared with men who did not develop ED.27
Research has even found possible links to frequent ejaculation and a lower risk of prostate cancer. In one study of 32,000 men published in 2016 in the journal European Urology, for example, men who ejaculated at least 21 times per month while in their 20s were less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than those who ejaculated four to seven times per month. And men who ejaculated more often in their 40s were 22 percent less likely to get a prostate cancer diagnosis.
L-arginine, an amino acid that is naturally present in the body and helps make nitric oxide, supports a successful erection. Nitric oxide is responsible for making the blood vessels relax, which helps sustain an erection for men. A 1999 study, observed the effects of six weeks of high-dose (5 grams/day) orally administered nitric oxide (NO) donor L-arginine on men with organic ED. Thirty-one percent of those who took 5 grams/day of L-arginine experienced significant improvements in sexual function. Burns told Medical Daily, “l-arginine and deer antler velvet” have been the most popular go-to natural treatments for men.
Obesity and metabolic syndrome can cause changes in blood pressure, body composition, and cholesterol which may lead to ED. Other conditions that may contribute to erectile dysfunction include Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Peyronie’s disease, sleep disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Taking certain medications can also increase your risk for ED.
Chancellor et al. (109) compared VEDs with papaverine injections in 18 males with SCI. The injections and pumps were equally effective in inducing erections and no adverse effects from the treatments were reported. Treatment arms were crossed over, subsequently seven men chose the VED and seven men chose the papavarine highlighting equal efficacy in this population. In another treatment arm topical minoxidil was applied without any effective erections achieved by the study subjects.
Another study compared the response of surgically and medically castrated rabbits to vardenafil with that of control rabbits. [22] Castrated rabbits did not respond to vardenafil, whereas noncastrated rabbits did respond appropriately. This result suggests that a minimum amount of testosterone is necessary for PDE5 inhibitors to produce an erection.
A physical exam checks your total health. Examination focusing on your genitals (penis and testicles) is often done to check for ED. Based on your age and risk factors, the exam may also focus on your heart and blood system: heart, peripheral pulses and blood pressure. Based on your age and family history your doctor may do a rectal exam to check the prostate. These tests are not painful. Most patients do not need a lot of testing before starting treatment.
×