The inability to achieve or sustain a sufficiently firm penile erection (tumescence) to allow normal vaginal sexual intercourse. The great majority of cases are not caused by organic disease and most men experience occasional periods of impotence. It is often related to anxiety about performance and is usually readily corrected by simple counselling methods which prescribe sensual massage but forbid coitus. Organic impotence may be caused by DIABETES, MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS, spinal cord disorders and heart disease. Many cases can be helped by the drug SILDENAFIL (Viagra).
Watts and coworkers, in their review article, make several points about this ED/CAD nexus. Endothelial dysfunction is present in both CVD and ED, and is linked through the NO mechanism. The authors note that PDE5 inhibitors improve endothelial function and have a salutary effect on both CVD and ED. Both ED and cardiac disease respond to modifications in lifestyle as well as pharmacologic manipulation. These authors also report that the presence of ED gives the clinician an opportunity to assess CVD and prevention as well.20
As blood flows into the penis, the corpora cavernosa swell, and this swelling compresses the veins (blood vessels that drain the blood out of the penis) against the tunica albuginea. Compression of the veins prevents blood from leaving the penis. This creates a hard erection. When the amount of cGMP decreases by the action of a chemical called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), the muscles in the penis tighten, and the blood flow into the penis decreases. With less blood coming into the penis, the veins are not compressed, allowing blood to drain out of the penis, and the erection goes down.
The main medical causes of erectile dysfunction are based around poor blood flow (due to furring of the arteries thanks to raised cholesterol or high blood pressure), poor nerve supply caused by diabetes-related nerve damage, or low testosterone as a result of obesity, old age or failing gonads. We doctors get just as concerned with men who have variable erections as well as those that can't get an erection at all. Failing to get an erection occasionally is pretty normal as you get older. But if you have unreliable erections for a prolonged period of time – more than six months – this could suggest an early sign of physical problems such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes which could develop further so get yourself checked out.
The health care provider will ask about the firmness and duration of erections at different times (e.g., sex with partners, erections after sleep). Discussing sexual dysfunction with a health care provider is very important because many conditions causing it can be successfully treated. If a man has no diseases that cause ED and can have an erection with masturbation or early morning awakening, he likely has ED due to psychological causes.
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).
Factors that mediate contraction in the penis include noradrenaline, endothelin-1, neuropeptide Y, prostanoids, angiotensin II, and others not yet identified. Factors that mediate relaxation include acetylcholine, nitric oxide (NO), vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, pituitary adenylyl cyclase–activating peptide, calcitonin gene–related peptide, adrenomedullin, adenosine triphosphate, and adenosine prostanoids.
Men with physical causes of ED have options, including such medicines as sildenafil (Viagra®), vardenafil (Levitra®), or tadalafil (Cialis®). Men who use nitroglycerin products and those who should avoid sexual activity because of cardiovascular disease shouldn’t take these drugs. Other treatment modalities include use of a vacuum pump or injection of a substance (papaverine) into the penis to increase blood flow to the penis. Men can also have surgery to put a prosthesis into the penis.
The primary nerve fibers to the penis are from the dorsal nerve of the penis, a branch of the pudendal nerve. The cavernosal nerves are a part of the autonomic nervous system and incorporate both sympathetic and parasympathetic fibers. They travel posterolaterally along the prostate and enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to regulate blood flow during erection and detumescence. The dorsal somatic nerves are also branches of the pudendal nerves. They are primarily responsible for penile sensation. 
A vacuum erection device helps draw blood into the penis by applying negative pressure. This type of device is sometimes referred to as penis pump and may be used just prior to sexual intercourse. Several types of FDA approved vacuum therapy devices are available with a doctor's prescription. When pharmacological methods fail, a purpose-designed external vacuum pump can be used to attain erection, with a separate compression ring fitted to the penis to maintain it. These pumps should be distinguished from other penis pumps (supplied without compression rings) which, rather than being used for temporary treatment of impotence, are claimed to increase penis length if used frequently, or vibrate as an aid to masturbation. More drastically, inflatable or rigid penile implants may be fitted surgically.
This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.
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