ED usually has a multifactorial etiology. Organic, physiologic, endocrine, and psychogenic factors are involved in the ability to obtain and maintain erections. In general, ED is divided into 2 broad categories, organic and psychogenic. Although most ED was once attributed to psychological factors, pure psychogenic ED is in fact uncommon; however, many men with organic etiologies may also have an associated psychogenic component.


Because impotence can be due to health problems that can affect the whole body, and because it can interfere with one’s quality of life, it is important to talk with your doctor if you have trouble attaining or maintaining an erection. With increasing discussion of impotence in the media, coupled with advances in treatment, men are now much more comfortable talking with their doctors about impotence. It is currently estimated that between 15 and 30 million men in the United States are affected by impotence (Source: NIDDK).
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.
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
While studies are limited, it has been shown that male sexual dysfunction can also negatively impact the sexual function of female partners. A study comparing the sexual function of women with partners with erectile dysfunction to those without showed that sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, pain and total score were significantly lower in those who had partners with erectile dysfunction. Later in that study, a large proportion of the men with erectile dysfunction underwent treatment. Following treatment, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain were all significantly increased. It was concluded that female sexual function is impacted by male erection status, which may improve following treatment of male sexual dysfunction.
Although erectile dysfunction increases progressively with age, it is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Knowledge of the risk factors can guide prevention strategies. Specific antihypertensive, antidepressant, and antipsychotic drugs can be chosen to lessen the risk of erectile failure. Published lists of prescription drugs that may impair erectile functioning often are based on reports implicating a drug without systematic study. Such studies are needed to confirm the validity of these suggested associations. In the individual patient, the physician can modify the regimen in an effort to resolve the erectile problem.
Low-intensity extracorporeal shock wave therapy has been proposed as a new non-invasive treatment for erectile dysfunction caused by problems with blood vessels. Shock wave therapy machines are now available in some medical practices in Australia. Although there is some evidence that it may help a proportion of men with erectile dysfunction, more research is needed before clear recommendations on its use can be made.
Organic Impotence. Diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, and dysfunction of the pituitary gland or testes can cause impotence, as can certain medications. Other organic causes include arterial ischemia associated with atherosclerosis of the aorta and common iliac arteries, extensive pelvic surgery such as radical prostatectomy, spinal cord injury and other neurologic disorders, and a history of cigarette smoking. Because certain medications can cause impotence, it is recommended that in cases of recent impotence it be determined whether the patient has started on a new drug. The most common offenders are diuretics, antihypertensives, and vasodilators. Alcohol, which sometimes is ignored as a drug, is often a contributor to the problem of impotence.

For the patient whose history suggests organic impotence, further history, physical and laboratory data will help identify the cause. The classification listed in Table 187.2 is based on the pathophysiologic scheme presented above, and includes mechanical problems that can interfere with erection. Vascular disease is the most common cause of impotence. In advanced cases, Lehriche's syndrome of aortoiliac occlusion will be suggested by bilateral thigh or calf claudication, loss of muscle mass in the buttocks and legs, and impotence. However, the majority of patients with vascular impotence have less severe vascular disease and many will have occlusive disease of the hypogastric-cavernous bed only. Even among patients without claudication, vascular disease is still a likely cause of impotence, especially if risk factors for atherosclerosis are present. Nonatherosclerotic disease is a consideration in the patient with a history of trauma or radiation to the pelvis, both of which cause fibrosis of vessels.
ED is often the result of atherosclerosis, and as a result, men with ED frequently have cardiovascular disease. Sexual activity is associated with increased physical exertion, which in some men may increase the risk of having a heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI). The major risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease are age, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, smoking, abnormal lipid/cholesterol levels in the blood, and lack of exercise. Individuals with three or more of these risk factors are at increased risk for a heart attack during sexual activity. The Princeton Consensus Panel developed guidelines for treating ED in men with cardiovascular disease. Thus, if you have ED and cardiovascular disease (for example, angina or prior heart attack), you should discuss whether or not treatment of ED and sexual activity are appropriate for you.
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
In some cases, ED can be a warning sign of more serious disease. One study suggests ED is a strong predictor of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease. The researchers say all men diagnosed with ED should be evaluated for cardiovascular disease. This does not mean every man with ED will develop heart disease, or that every man with heart disease has ED, but patients should be aware of the link.
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