Traditionally, erectile impotence (the classical definition of impotence) is the failure to achieve penile erection during intercourse. It may have either physical or psychological causes. Alcoholism, endocrine disease, and neurological disorders are typical physical causes. Psychological causes include anxiety over performance, hostility or other negative feelings toward the sexual partner, and stress, anxiety, depression, or other emotional conflicts outside of the relationship. Erectile impotence occasionally occurs with age and, although attributed by the individual to the aging process itself, it is usually secondary to disorders of aging, such as faulty blood circulation or prostate disease. In cases of impotence caused by blood vessel dysfunction, an insufficient supply of blood flows into the penis, or the blood diffuses out into adjacent tissues.
Many men gain potency by injecting drugs into the penis, causing it to become engorged with blood. Drugs such as papaverine hydrochloride, phentolamine, and alprostadil (marked as Caverject) widen blood vessels. These drugs may create unwanted side effects, however, including persistent erection (known as priapism) and scarring. Nitroglycerin, a muscle relaxant, sometimes can enhance erection when rubbed on the surface of the penis.
To start with, ED is NOT in your head. You can’t simply will yourself to get an erection, no matter how much you try. Studies show over 80% of ED cases are caused by a treatable physical disorder. Diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are common causes. Even a perfectly healthy man can develop ED after a brain or spinal cord injury. ED can be a side effect of certain medications, too. Read more on our Causes of ED page.
If a man's arteries become blocked with cholesterol – as a result of genetics, and/or lifestyle factors such as smoking, a poor diet and lack of exercise – it will affect the vessels all over his body. The arteries supplying the penis are relatively small, just 1-2mm wide, and so they become blocked more quickly than others. The blood flow to the area is reduced, meaning erections become more difficult.
By contrast, psychogenic impotence typically is abrupt in onset, often in relation to psychological trauma, and may wax and wane. Patients with psychogenic impotence may have total erectile failure with one partner but not another, or be impotent during sexual intercourse but not during self-stimulation. Normally occurring spontaneous erections in the morning suggest psychogenic rather than organic causes for impotence.
The appropriate evaluation of all men with erectile dysfunction should include a medical and detailed sexual history (including practices and techniques), a physical examination, a psycho-social evaluation, and basic laboratory studies. When available, a multidisciplinary approach to this evaluation may be desirable. In selected patients, further physiologic or invasive studies may be indicated. A sensitive sexual history, including expectations and motivations, should be obtained from the patient (and sexual partner whenever possible) in an interview conducted by an interested physician or another specially trained professional. A written patient questionnaire may be helpful but is not a substitute for the interview. The sexual history is needed to accurately define the patient's specific complaint and to distinguish between true erectile dysfunction, changes in sexual desire, and orgasmic or ejaculatory disturbances. The patient should be asked specifically about perceptions of his erectile dysfunction, including the nature of onset, frequency, quality, and duration of erections; the presence of nocturnal or morning erections; and his ability to achieve sexual satisfaction. Psychosocial factors related to erectile dysfunction should be probed, including specific situational circumstances, performance anxiety, the nature of sexual relationships, details of current sexual techniques, expectations, motivation for treatment, and the presence of specific discord in the patient's relationship with his sexual partner. The sexual partner's own expectations and perceptions should also be sought since they may have important bearing on diagnosis and treatment recommendations.
Penile prostheses are very effective, and most patients who have a prosthesis placed are satisfied with the prosthesis. However, placement of a prosthesis causes scarring of the tissue within the corpora cavernosa, and if the prosthesis requires removal, other forms of therapy, except for the vacuum device, are often not effective. Thus, most physicians reserve placement of a prosthesis for men who have tried and failed or have contraindications to other therapies.
Alprostadil should not be used in men at higher risk for priapism (erection lasting longer than six hours) including men with sickle cell anemia, thrombocytopenia (low platelet count), polycythemia (increased red blood cell count), multiple myeloma (a cancer of the white blood cells), and is contraindicated in men prone to venous thrombosis (blood clots in the veins) or hyperviscosity syndrome who are at increased risk for priapism.
Surgery: If neither drugs nor the vacuum pump works, your doctor may suggest surgery. With surgery, the doctor can place a device in your penis that will cause enough hardness for intercourse. In a few cases, infections may develop after the operation, and the doctor may have to remove the device. Another operation that may help you is rebuilding the blood vessels in the penis to increase blood flow into the penis or decrease blood flow out of the penis. These procedures can help you to get and maintain an erection.
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.