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.
Erectile dysfunction, or ED, can be a total inability to achieve an erection, an inconsistent ability to do so, or a tendency to sustain only brief erections.
According to the Journal of Urology by A. Melman and J. Gingell, it has been estimated that the prevalence of erectile dysfunction of all degrees is 52% in men between the ages 40 to 70 years old, with higher rates in those older than 70 years. Erectile dysfunction has a significant negative impact on quality of life. Risk factors for erectile dysfunction include aging, chronic illnesses, various medications and cigarette smoking.
Since an erection requires a precise sequence of events, ED can occur when any of the events are 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. 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. Smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to become impotent. Smoking damages the blood vessels in the penis, inhibiting the healthy flow of blood that leads to an erecting. Since these vessels are considerably narrower than those leading to the heart, the penis is even more susceptible to the serious effects of smoking.
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, and depression). Other possible causes are smoking, which affects blood flow in veins and arteries, and hormonal abnormalities, such as not enough testosterone.
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 clients 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.
Drugs for treating ED can be taken orally, injected directly into the penis, or inserted into the urethra at the tip of the penis. In March 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Viagra, the first pill to treat ED. Since that time, vardenafil hydrochloride (Levitra) and tadalafil (Cialis) have also been approved. Additional oral medicines are being tested for safety and effectiveness. Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis all belong to a class of drugs called phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitors. Taken an hour before sexual activity, these drugs work by enhancing the effects of nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes smooth muscles in the penis during sexual stimulation and allows increased blood flow.
While oral medicines improve the response to sexual stimulation, they do not trigger an automatic erection as injections do. None of these PDE inhibitors should be used more than once a day. Men who take nitrate-based drugs such as nitroglycerin for heart problems should not use either drug because the combination can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure. Also, tell your doctor if you take any drugs called alpha-blockers, which are used to treat prostate enlargement or high blood pressure. Your doctor may need to adjust your ED prescription. Taking a PDE inhibitor and an alpha-blocker at the same time (within 4 hours) can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure.
PDE inhibitor drugs can only be prescribed by a doctor. Please do not use these medications before consulting with your doctor.