The circulatory system plays a central role in obtaining and sustaining erections. Augmentation of blood flow to the corporal bodies depends on the intravascular pressure in the penile artery. Vascular lesions—typically atherosclerotic, but occasionally fibrotic—and systemic hypotension will limit flow to the corpora. In certain patients, blood flow at rest may be sufficient to obtain an erection but not sufficient to maintain it during intercourse, when the pelvic musculature places greater demands on a compromised blood supply.
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.
A number of herbs have been promoted for treating impotence. The most widely touted herbs for this purpose are Coryanthe yohimbe (available by prescription as yohimbine, with the trade name Yocon) and gingko (Gingko biloba), although neither has been conclusively shown to help the condition in controlled studies. In addition, gingko carries some risk of abnormal blood clotting and should be avoided by men taking blood thinners such as coumadin. Other herbs promoted for treating impotence include true unicorn root (Aletrius farinosa), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), ginseng (Panax ginseng), and Siberian ginseng (Eleuthrococcus senticosus). Strychnos Nux vomica has been recommended, especially when impotence is caused by excessive alcohol, cigarettes, or dietary indiscretions, but it can be very toxic if taken improperly, so it should be used only under the strict supervision of a physician trained in its use.
Psychotherapy, marital counseling, or sex therapy may be helpful in treating cases of impotence that have psychological or emotional causes. A range of other treatments exists for cases of impotence that arise from purely physiological causes. These treatments include vacuum devices, penile injections, and penile implants. These mechanical or physically invasive approaches have largely been superseded, however, by the drug sildenafil citrate (trade name Viagra), which is taken in pill form. This drug works by enhancing the effects of nitric oxide, a chemical that, upon sexual stimulation, is normally released to widen the blood vessels supplying the penis. The increased flow of blood through those vessels into certain tissues in the penis causes an erection. See also sexual dysfunction.
Alprostadil should not be used in men with urethral stricture (scarring and narrowing of the tube that urine and the ejaculate pass through), balanitis (inflammation/infection of the glans [tip] of the penis, severe hypospadias (a condition where the opening of the urethra is not at the tip of the penis, rather on the underside of the penis), penile curvature (abnormal bend to the penis), and urethritis (inflammation/infection of the urethra).
Healthy lifestyle minimizes risk of ED. Erection depends on blood flow through the penis. Anything that impairs it increases ED risk: smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, being overweight, sedentary lifestyle, more than two alcoholic drinks a day, and fewer than five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Avoiding these risk factors does not prevent post-50 erection changes, but it preserves erection function and helps prevent ED.
The risk of impotence increases with age. It is four-fold higher in men in their 60s compared with those in their 40s according to a study published in the Journal of Urology (2000;163:460-463). Men with less education are also more likely to experience impotence, perhaps because they tend to have less healthy lifestyles, eat a less healthy diet, drink more and exercise less. Physical exercise tends to lessen the risk of impotence.
Impotence can have emotional causes but most often it is due to a physical problem. The physical causes of impotence include diseases (such as diabetes and hypertension), injuries (such as from prostate surgery), side-effects of drugs (such as the protease inhibitors used in HIV therapy), and disorders (such as atherosclerosis) that impair blood flow in the penis. Impotence is treatable in all age groups. Treatments include psychotherapy, vacuum devices, surgery and, most often today, drug therapy.
This statement is more than five years old and is provided solely for historical purposes. Due to the cumulative nature of medical research, new knowledge has inevitably accumulated in this subject area in the time since the statement was initially prepared. Thus some of the material is likely to be out of date, and at worst simply wrong. For reliable, current information on this and other health topics, we recommend consulting the National Institutes of Health's MedlinePlus http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/.
Another common problem for men who have trouble in the bedroom is substance use or abuse. In some cases, a man suffering from erectile dysfunction may be diagnosed with depression and be prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These medications may be able to assist in alleviating the symptoms of depression, but they can also lead to erectile dysfunction.
Drugs for treating impotence can be taken orally or injected directly into the penis or inserted into the urethra at the tip of the penis. Oral testosterone can reduce impotence in some men with low levels of natural testosterone. Patients also have claimed effectiveness of other oral drugs--including yohimbine hydrochloride, dopamine and serotonin agonists, and trazodone--but no scientific studies have proved the effectiveness of these drugs in relieving impotence. Some observed improvements following their use may be examples of the placebo effect, that is, a change that results simply from the patient's believing that an improvement will occur.
Additionally, the physiologic processes involving erections begin at the genetic level. Certain genes become activated at critical times to produce proteins vital to sustaining this pathway. Some researchers have focused on identifying particular genes that place men at risk for ED. At present, these studies are limited to animal models, and little success has been reported to date.  Nevertheless, this research has given rise to many new treatment targets and a better understanding of the entire process.
Other medical therapies under evaluation include ROCK inhibitors and soluble guanyl cyclase activators. Melanocortin receptor agonists are a new set of medications being developed in the field of erectile dysfunction. Their action is on the nervous system rather than the vascular system. PT-141 is a nasal preparation that appears to be effective alone or in combination with PDE5 inhibitors. The main side effects include flushing and nausea. These drugs are currently not approved for commercial use.
In their extensive review, Bassil and coworkers summarise the benefits and risks, with benefits such as improvement of sexual function, bone density, muscle strength, cognition and overall improvement in quality of life. Among the risks that have been suggested include erythrocytosis, liver toxicity, worsening of sleep apnoea and cardiac function, possibly increasing symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). They also note that although a possibility of stimulation of prostate cancer has been hypothesised, no scientific or clinical evidence exists to this possible risk.38
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.