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Erectile dysfunction, sometimes called "impotence," is the repeated inability to get or keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse. The word "impotence" may also be used to describe other problems that interfere with sexual intercourse and reproduction, such as lack of sexual desire and problems with ejaculation or orgasm. Using the term erectile dysfunction makes it clear that those other problems are not involved.

In older men, ED usually has a physical cause, such as disease, injury, or side effects of drugs. Any disorder that causes injury to the nerves or impairs blood flow in the penis has the potential to cause ED. Incidence increases with age: About 5 percent of 40-year-old men and between 15 and 25 percent of 65-year-old men experience ED. But it is not an inevitable part of aging. ED is treatable at any age, and awareness of this fact has been growing. More men have been seeking help and returning to normal sexual activity because of improved, successful treatments for ED. Urologists, who specialize in problems of the urinary tract, have traditionally treated ED.

How does an erection occur?

The penis contains two chambers called the corpora cavernosa, which run the length of the organ (see figure 1). A spongy tissue fills the chambers. The corpora cavernosa are surrounded by a membrane, called the tunica albuginea. The spongy tissue contains smooth muscles, fibrous tissues, spaces, veins, and arteries. The urethra, which is the channel for urine and ejaculate, runs along the underside of the corpora cavernosa and is surrounded by the corpus spongiosum.

Erection begins with sensory or mental stimulation, or both. Impulses from the brain and local nerves cause the muscles of the corpora cavernosa to relax, allowing blood to flow in and fill the spaces. The blood creates pressure in the corpora cavernosa, making the penis expand. The tunica albuginea helps trap the blood in the corpora cavernosa, thereby sustaining erection. When muscles in the penis contract to stop the inflow of blood and open outflow channels, erection is reversed.

Figure 1. Arteries (top) and veins (bottom) penetrate the long, filled cavities running the length of the penis-the corpora cavernosa and the corpus spongiosum. Erection occurs when relaxed muscles allow the corpora cavernosa to fill with excess blood fed by the arteries, while drainage of blood through the veins is blocked.

What causes erectile dysfunction (ED)?

Since an erection requires a precise sequence of events, ED can occur when any of the events is disrupted. The sequence includes nerve impulses in the brain, spinal column, and area around the penis, and response in muscles, fibrous tissues, veins, and arteries in and near the corpora cavernosa.

Damage to nerves, arteries, smooth muscles, and fibrous tissues, often as a result of disease, is the most common cause of ED. Diseases-such as diabetes, kidney disease, chronic alcoholism, multiple sclerosis, atherosclerosis, vascular disease, and neurologic disease-account for about 70 percent of ED cases. Between 35 and 50 percent of men with diabetes experience ED. Lifestyle choices that contribute to heart disease and vascular problems also raise the risk of erectile dysfunction. Smoking, being overweight, and avoiding exercise are possible causes of ED.

Also, surgery (especially radical prostate and bladder surgery for cancer) can injure nerves and arteries near the penis, causing ED. Injury to the penis, spinal cord, prostate, bladder, and pelvis can lead to ED by harming nerves, smooth muscles, arteries, and fibrous tissues of the corpora cavernosa.

In addition, many common medicines-blood pressure drugs, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, appetite suppressants, and cimetidine (an ulcer drug)-can produce ED as a side effect.

Experts believe that psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, guilt, depression, low self-esteem, and fear of sexual failure cause 10 to 20 percent of ED cases. Men with a physical cause for ED frequently experience the same sort of psychological reactions (stress, anxiety, guilt, depression). Other possible causes are smoking, which affects blood flow in veins and arteries, and hormonal abnormalities, such as not enough testosterone.


How is ED diagnosed?

Patient History

Medical and sexual histories help define the degree and nature of ED. A medical history can disclose diseases that lead to ED, while a simple recounting of sexual activity might distinguish among problems with sexual desire, erection, ejaculation, or orgasm. Using certain prescription or illegal drugs can suggest a chemical cause, since drug effects account for 25 percent of ED cases. Cutting back on or substituting certain medications can often alleviate the problem.


Physical Examination

A physical examination can give clues to systemic problems. For example, if the penis is not sensitive to touching, a problem in the nervous system may be the cause. Abnormal secondary sex characteristics, such as hair pattern or breast enlargement, can point to hormonal problems, which would mean that the endocrine system is involved. The examiner might discover a circulatory problem by observing decreased pulses in the wrist or ankles. And unusual characteristics of the penis itself could suggest the source of the problem-for example, a penis that bends or curves when erect could be the result of Peyronie's disease.


Laboratory Tests

Several laboratory tests can help diagnose ED. Tests for systemic diseases include blood counts, urinalysis, lipid profile, and measurements of creatinine and liver enzymes. Measuring the amount of free testosterone in the blood can yield information about problems with the endocrine system and is indicated especially in patients with decreased sexual desire.


Other Tests

Monitoring erections that occur during sleep (nocturnal penile tumescence) can help rule out certain psychological causes of ED. Healthy men have involuntary erections during sleep. If nocturnal erections do not occur, then ED is likely to have a physical rather than psychological cause. Tests of nocturnal erections are not completely reliable, however. Scientists have not standardized such tests and have not determined when they should be applied for best results. Most physicians suggest that treatments proceed from least to most invasive. For some men, making a few healthy lifestyle changes may solve the problem. Quitting smoking, losing excess weight, and increasing physical activity may help some men regain sexual function.

Cutting back on any drugs with harmful side effects is considered next. For example, drugs for high blood pressure work in different ways. If you think a particular drug is causing problems with erection, tell your doctor and ask whether you can try a different class of blood pressure medicine. Psychotherapy and behavior modifications in selected patients are considered next if indicated, followed by oral or locally injected drugs, vacuum devices, and surgically implanted devices. In rare cases, surgery involving veins or arteries may be considered.


Points to Remember

  • Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the repeated inability to get or keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse.
  • ED affects 15 to 30 million American men.
  • ED usually has a physical cause.
  • ED is treatable at all ages.
  • Treatments include psychotherapy, drug therapy, vacuum devices, and surgery.

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