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. 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.
Erosion of the prosthesis, whereby it presses through the corporal tissue into the urethra, may occur. Symptoms and signs may include pain, blood in the urine, discharge, abnormal urine stream, and malfunction. If the prosthesis erodes into the urethra, a physician must remove it. If the other cylinder remains intact, it can be left in place. A physician leaves a catheter in place to allow the urethra to heal.
Patients with both ED and cardiovascular disease who receive treatment with an oral PDE5 inhibitor require education regarding what to do if anginal episodes develop while the drug is in their system. Such education includes stressing the importance of alerting emergency care providers to the presence of the drug so that nitrate treatment is avoided.
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.  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.
The inflatable type of device consists of cylinders that are implanted in the corpora cavernosa, a fluid reservoir implanted in the abdomen, and a pump placed in the scrotum. The man squeezes the pump to move fluid into the cylinders and cause them to become rigid. (He reverses the process by squeezing the pump again.) While these devices allow for intermittent erections, they have a slightly higher malfunction rate than the silicon rods.
Some men should not take PDE5 inhibitors. They can cause hypotension (abnormally low blood pressure that can lead to fainting and even shock) when given to patients who are taking nitrates (medications taken for heart disease). Therefore, patients taking nitrates daily should not take any of the PDE5 inhibitors. Nitrates relieve angina (chest pain due to insufficient blood supply to the heart muscle because of narrowing of the coronary arteries); these include nitroglycerine tablets, patches, ointments, sprays, and pastes, as well as isosorbide dinitrate and isosorbide mononitrate. Other nitrates such as amyl nitrate and butyl nitrate also are in some recreational drugs called "poppers."
Lifestyle choices that impair blood circulation can contribute to ED. Smoking, excessive drinking, and drug abuse may damage the blood vessels and reduce blood flow to the penis. Smoking makes men with atherosclerosis particularly vulnerable to ED. Being overweight and getting too little exercise also contribute to ED. Studies indicate that men who exercise regularly have a lower risk of ED.