It is estimated that up to 20 million American men frequently suffer from impotence and that it strikes up to half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70. Doctors used to think that most cases of impotence were psychological in origin, but they now recognize that, at least in older men, physical causes may play a primary role in 60% or more of all cases. In men over the age of 60, the leading cause is atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can restrict the flow of blood to the penis. Injury or disease of the connective tissue, such as Peyronie's disease, may prevent the corpora cavernosa from completely expanding. Damage to the nerves of the penis, from certain types of surgery or neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, may also cause impotence. Men with diabetes are especially at risk for impotence because of their high risk of both atherosclerosis and a nerve disease called diabetic neuropathy.
An initial approach to medical therapy should consider reversible medical problems that may contribute to erectile dysfunction. Included in this should be assessment of the possibility of medication-induced erectile dysfunction with consideration for reduction of polypharmacy and/or substitution of medications with lower probability of inducing erectile dysfunction.
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.
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To a significant degree, the public, particularly older men, is conditioned to accept erectile dysfunction as a condition of progressive aging for which little can be done. In addition, there is considerable inaccurate public information regarding sexual function and dysfunction. Often, this is in the form of advertisements in which enticing promises are made, and patients then become even more demoralized when promised benefits fail to materialize. Accurate information on sexual function and the management of dysfunction must be provided to affected men and their partners. They also must be encouraged to seek professional help, and providers must be aware of the embarrassment and/or discouragement that may often be reasons why men with erectile dysfunction avoid seeking appropriate treatment.