Erectile dysfunction (previously called impotence) is the inability to get or maintain an erection that is sufficient to ensure satisfactory sex for both partners. This problem can cause significant distress for couples. Fortunately more and more men of all ages are seeking help, and treatment for ED has advanced rapidly. The enormous demand for “anti-impotence” drugs suggests that erection problems may be more common than was previously thought. Find out more about the causes and treatment of erectile dysfunction here.
Sildenafil (Viagra) was the first oral phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor approved by the FDA in the United States for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (it is not approved for women). Sildenafil inhibits PDE5, which is an enzyme that destroys cGMP. By inhibiting the destruction of cGMP by PDE5, sildenafil allows cGMP to accumulate. The cGMP in turn prolongs relaxation of the smooth muscle of the corpora cavernosa. Relaxation of the corpora cavernosa smooth muscle allows blood to flow into the penis resulting in increased engorgement of the penis. In short, sildenafil increases blood flow into the penis and decreases blood flow out of the penis.
Long-term predictions based on an aging population and an increase in risk factors (eg, hypertension, diabetes, vascular disease, pelvic and prostate surgery, benign prostatic hyperplasia, and lower urinary tract symptoms) suggest a large increase in the number of men with ED. In addition, the prevalence of ED is underestimated because physicians frequently do not question their patients about this disorder.
When you become aroused, your brain sends chemical messages to the blood vessels in the penis, causing them to dilate or open, allowing blood to flow into the penis. As the pressure builds, the blood becomes trapped in the corpora cavernosa, keeping the penis erect. If blood flow to the penis is insufficient or if it fails to stay inside the penis, it can lead to erectile dysfunction.
There have been rare reports of priapism (prolonged and painful erections lasting more than six hours) with the use of PDE5 inhibitors such as sildenafil, vardenafil, and tadalafil. Patients with blood cell diseases such as sickle cell anemia, leukemia, and multiple myeloma have higher than normal risks of developing priapism. Untreated priapism can cause injury to the penis and lead to permanent impotence. Therefore, if your erection lasts four hours, you should seek emergency medical care.
Total testosterone levels: Health care professionals should obtain a patient's blood samples for total testosterone levels in the early morning (before 8 a.m.) because the testosterone levels go up and down throughout the day. If you have a low testosterone level, a health care professional should check it again to confirm that it is truly low. In some men, a specialized test measuring the active form of testosterone (free or bioavailable testosterone) may be recommended.
An approach to the diagnosis and management of the impotent patient is presented in Figure 187.1. Apparent and likely causes of impotence should be considered first and, if possible, eliminated before the work-up continues. For instance, observing the patient for a few weeks off offending medication may be all that is necessary to establish the cause of impotence. When no obvious or remediable cause is present, the next step is based on the clinical impression of the likelihood of organic versus psychologic impotence. If the latter is considered more likely, it is perfectly reasonable to refer the patient directly for sexual therapy, with the option of reconsidering the diagnosis if, after appropriate therapy, there is no improvement. While an occasional patient with organic impotence will be misrouted, many more with psychogenic impotence will be spared an unnecessary and costly evaluation for organic causes. When organic impotence is likely, a serum testosterone level is the initial screening test for hypogonadism and should be obtained prior to urologic referral. Patients with low testosterone levels require further endocrine evaluations as depicted in Figure 187.1.
Don’t give up or blame yourself - you shouldn’t assume that your situation is impossible to improve or that your partner is disappointed in you. Studies show as long as you don’t stop trying to engage your partner sexually, they will still respond positively. If you communicate and stay positive you can work with your partner to get the result you’re looking for.
If you are taking medications (alpha-blockers) for problems with an enlarged prostate, you should discuss your prostate medications with your doctor. Alpha-blockers also can cause lowering of the blood pressure. Thus your doctor will need to carefully watch your blood pressure when you start the PDE5 inhibitor. Common alpha-blockers include doxazosin (Cardura), terazosin (Hytrin), and tamsulosin (Flomax).
Besides treating the underlying causes such as potassium deficiency or arsenic contamination of drinking water, the first line treatment of erectile dysfunction consists of a trial of PDE5 inhibitor (such as sildenafil). In some cases, treatment can involve prostaglandin tablets in the urethra, injections into the penis, a penile prosthesis, a penis pump or vascular reconstructive surgery.
“Cardiovascular exercise and weight resistance exercises increase a man’s testosterone, which helps ward off ED,” Gittens says. The problem is, your testosterone levels drop as you age. Your levels now as a 25-year-old will drop about 50 percent by the time you're 75, according to data from the Reviews of Urology. To keep your levels high, check out this testosterone-boosting workout.
Nearly every primary care physician, internist and geriatrician now understand that many older men retain an interest in sexual activity as they age. Some primary care physicians think that sexual potency in older men is the norm, and that if it is lacking, it is ‘all in the head.’ This viewpoint has not been supported by current literature. The Massachusetts Male Aging Study (MMAS) found that 52% of men between 40 and 70 years old reported having some form of erectile dysfunction (ED).1 The reality is that ED is a natural part of ageing and that the prevalence increases with age. In the MMAS, they found that roughly 50% of men at 50 years old, 60% of men at 60 years old and 70% of men at 70 years old had ED. Thus, nearly all men who live long enough should develop ED. The myths that surround the problems of impotence or ED confound the attempts of patients to receive treatment and the attempts of physicians to help them.1
Another study compared the response of surgically and medically castrated rabbits to vardenafil with that of control rabbits.  Castrated rabbits did not respond to vardenafil, whereas noncastrated rabbits did respond appropriately. This result suggests that a minimum amount of testosterone is necessary for PDE5 inhibitors to produce an erection.