Because adequate arterial supply is critical for erection, any disorder that impairs blood flow may be implicated in the etiology of erectile failure. Most of the medical disorders associated with erectile dysfunction appear to affect the arterial system. Some disorders may interfere with the corporal veno-occlusive mechanism and result in failure to trap blood within the penis, or produce leakage such that an erection cannot be maintained or is easily lost.
The Massachusetts Male Aging Study (MMAS) documented an inverse correlation between ED risk and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels but did not identify any effect from elevated total cholesterol levels.  Another study involving male subjects aged 45-54 years found a correlation with abnormal HDL cholesterol levels but also found a correlation with elevated total cholesterol levels. The MMAS included a preponderance of older men.
Injection of vasodilator substances into the corpora of the penis has provided a new therapeutic technique for a variety of causes of erectile dysfunction. The most effective and well-studied agents are papaverine, phentolamine, and prostaglandin E[sub 1]. These have been used either singly or in combination. Use of these agents occasionally causes priapism (inappropriately persistent erections). This appears to have been seen most commonly with papaverine. Priapism is treated with adrenergic agents, which can cause life-threatening hypertension in patients receiving monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Use of the penile vasodilators also can be problematic in patients who cannot tolerate transient hypotension, those with severe psychiatric disease, those with poor manual dexterity, those with poor vision, and those receiving anticoagulant therapy. Liver function tests should be obtained in those being treated with papaverine alone. Prostaglandin E[sub 1] can be used together with papaverine and phentolamine to decrease the incidence of side effects such as pain, penile corporal fibrosis, fibrotic nodules, hypotension, and priapism. Further study of the efficacy of multitherapy versus monotherapy and of the relative complications and safety of each approach is indicated. Although these agents have not received FDA approval for this indication, they are in widespread clinical use. Patients treated with these agents should give full informed consent. There is a high rate of patient dropout, often early in the treatment. Whether this is related to side effects, lack of spontaneity in sexual relations, or general loss of interest is unclear. Patient education and followup support might improve compliance and lessen the dropout rate. However, the reasons for the high dropout rate need to be determined and quantified.
Heart disease isn't the only risk. ED is also a predictor of stroke, because when the arteries are narrowed there is more chance of a blood clot, which can spread to the brain. It is also a common complication of diabetes. But embarrassment stops people seeking help, says Jackson. "We need to encourage men to talk to their spouses about this problem, instead of making an excuse to avoid sex.
Diabetes mellitus: Erectile dysfunction tends to develop 10 to 15 years earlier in diabetic men than among nondiabetic men. The increased risk of erectile dysfunction among men with diabetes mellitus may be due to the earlier onset and greater severity of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) that narrows the arteries and thereby reduces the delivery of blood to the penis. Atherosclerosis can affect the arteries in the penis, as well as the arteries in the pelvis that supply the penile arteries. Diabetes mellitus also causes erectile dysfunction by damaging nerves that go to the penis, much like the effect of diabetes on nerves in other areas of the body (diabetic neuropathy). Diabetes can also affect the muscles in the penis, leading to troubles with erections. Smoking cigarettes, obesity, poor control of blood glucose levels, and having diabetes mellitus for a long time further increase the risk of erectile dysfunction in people with diabetes.
A system for inserting a pellet of alprostadil into the urethra is marketed as MUSE. The system uses a pre-filled applicator to deliver the pellet about an inch deep into the urethra at the tip of the penis. An erection will begin within 8 to 10 minutes and may last 30 to 60 minutes. The most common side effects of the preparation are aching in the penis, testicles, and area between the penis and rectum; warmth or burning sensation in the urethra; redness of the penis due to increased blood flow; and minor urethral bleeding or spotting.
Stanley A Brosman, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association for Cancer Research, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Urological Association, Society for Basic Urologic Research, Society of Surgical Oncology, Society of Urologic Oncology, Western Section of the American Urological Association, Association of Clinical Research Professionals, American Society of Clinical Oncology, International Society of Urology, International Society of Urological Pathology
Having learned a great deal more about erectile dysfunction including its risk factors and causes, you should be equipped to assess your own erectile function. If you have experienced erectile issues or you have some of the risk factors mentioned above, it may be worth making a trip to your doctor’s office. If you choose to seek help, give your doctor as much information as you can about your symptoms including their frequency and severity as well as the onset. With your doctor’s help, you can determine the best course of treatment to restore sexual function.
ED usually has something physical behind it, particularly in older men. But psychological factors can be a factor in many cases of ED. Experts say stress, depression, poor self-esteem, and performance anxiety can short-circuit the process that leads to an erection. These factors can also make the problem worse in men whose ED stems from something physical.