Men are very susceptible to visual stimulation, particularly as children and teenagers. Seeing anything appealing (say, a person or image) activates pathways in the brain that tell nerves in your lower spinal cord to trigger a release of nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessel walls and floods your penis with blood, making it hard. Nitric oxide is the key chemical here, as you need a mix released from your nerves AND from your blood vessels to get an erection. If the blood vessels, nerves, or both are damaged, it's difficult to get a hard erection. That's why your doctor may well be interested if you're struggling with erections, as it could be a sign of early heart disease or diabetes.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Erections are more complicated than you think. Your brain, nerves, heart, blood vessels, and a whole lot of hormones have to work together perfectly or nothing happens. It’s a lot to ask, and sometimes things break down. And while ED happens to most guys at some point in their lives, erectile dysfunction isn’t something you can just ignore and hope it goes away.


The penis contains three cylinders, the two corpora cavernosa, which are on the top of the penis (see figure 1 below). These two cylinders are involved in erections. The third cylinder contains the urethra, the tube that the urine and ejaculate passes through, runs along the underside of the penis. The corpus spongiosum surrounds the urethra. Spongy tissue that has muscles, fibrous tissues, veins, and arteries within it makes up the corpora cavernosa. The inside of the corpora cavernosa is like a sponge, with potential spaces that can fill with blood and distend (known as sinusoids). A layer of tissue that is like Saran Wrap, called the tunica albuginea, surrounds the corpora. Veins located just under the tunica albuginea drain blood out of the penis.
Psychotherapy and/or behavioral therapy may be useful for some patients with erectile dysfunction without obvious organic cause, and for their partners. These may also be used as an adjunct to other therapies directed at the treatment of organic erectile dysfunction. Outcome data from such therapy, however, have not been well-documented or quantified, and additional studies along these lines are indicated.
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Getting your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in an optimal range will help protect your heart and blood vessels. Cholesterol management may include lifestyle interventions (diet and exercise) as well as medications to get your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides in an optimal range.
Causes of impotence are many and include heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Parkinson's disease, Peyronie's disease, substance abuse, sleep disorders, BPH treatments, relationship problems, blood vessel diseases (such as peripheral vascular disease and others), systemic disease, hormonal imbalance, and medications (such as blood pressure and heart medications).
Research is mixed on the effectiveness of acupuncture as an erectile dysfunction cure, but one study published in November 2013 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that acupuncture can be beneficial for men experiencing erectile dysfunction as a side effect of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
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."
Qaseem, A., Snow, V., Denberg, T. D., Casey, D. E., Forciea, M. A., Owens, D. K., & Shekelle, P. (2009). Hormonal testing and pharmacologic treatment of erectile dysfunction: A clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians. Annals of internal medicine, 151(9), 639-649. Retrieved from http://annals.org/aim/article/745155/hormonal-testing-pharmacologic-treatment-erectile-dysfunction-clinical-practice-guideline-from
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