Constriction of the trabecular smooth muscle and helicine arteries induced by sympathetic innervation makes the penis flaccid, with blood pressure in the cavernosal sinuses of the penis near venous pressure. Acetylcholine is thought to decrease sympathetic tone. This may be important in a permissive sense for adequate trabecular smooth muscle relaxation and consequent effective action of other mediators in achieving sufficient inflow of blood into the lacunar spaces. When the trabecular smooth muscle relaxes and helicine arteries dilate in response to parasympathetic stimulation and decreased sympathetic tone, increased blood flow fills the cavernous spaces, increasing the pressure within these spaces so that the penis becomes erect. As the venules are compressed against the tunica albuginea, penile pressure approaches arterial pressure, causing rigidity. Once this state is achieved, arterial inflow is reduced to a level that matches venous outflow.
My boyfriend has a hard time getting and staying hard. It's obviously a difficult situation to talk about, but he says he feels pressure when he's with me (versus previous random hookups he wasn't invested in), so he psyches himself out. When we do have sex, I'm almost always really satisfied and I care a lot about him, both things I express in and outside of the bedroom. But the situation seems to be only getting worse. We've stopped having sex during the week because our busy lives mean we don't have an hour or more to devote to sex (which is sometimes what it takes), or we can't have sex at all because of what he's experiencing. I'm afraid this is going to continue to get worse, not only sexually but emotionally in our relationship. How can I help him fix this, and reassure him in the meantime that I care about him and want to support him?

The circulatory system plays a central role in obtaining and sustaining erections. Augmentation of blood flow to the corporal bodies depends on the intravascular pressure in the penile artery. Vascular lesions—typically atherosclerotic, but occasionally fibrotic—and systemic hypotension will limit flow to the corpora. In certain patients, blood flow at rest may be sufficient to obtain an erection but not sufficient to maintain it during intercourse, when the pelvic musculature places greater demands on a compromised blood supply.
A meta-analysis of 36 744 men with ED in 12 prospective cohort studies found that the presence of ED significantly increased the risk of CVD, CAD, stroke and all-cause mortality, and the presence of ED was an independent risk factor for CVD. Ponholzer et al found that men with moderate to severe ED had a 65% increased relative risk for developing symptomatic CAD compared with men who did not have ED.26
Thanks for your question, Frightened Turtle! To help answer it, we spoke with Dr. Darius Paduch, urologist and male sexual medicine specialist at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and sex therapist Jenni Skyler, Ph.D., director of The Intimacy Institute for sex and relationship therapy in Boulder, Colorado. Here's what they had to say:

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The U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a list of 29 OTC products that claim to treat erectile dysfunction. Patients should avoid these because many contain harmful ingredients. Other natural or herbal remedies such as DHEA, L-arginine, ginseng, and yohimbe are supplements that have been used but have not been proven safe and effective according to some researchers. Before using such compounds, individuals should consult their doctor. According to some experts, acupuncture does not effectively treat erectile dysfunction. Other home remedies for reducing ED symptoms include diet changes such as eating blueberries and citrus fruits and drinking red wine.

Remember those cultural messages we discussed earlier, about how men are wild sex aliens from the planet Weenus? Well, men are raised hearing those messages, too, and they can end up screwing with their sexual self-image —for instance, they can lead men to obsess over their own virility, and panic about impressing a new partner, until they've thought their boner into a corner and can't get an erection. Performance anxiety is one of the most common culprits behind lost erections, especially among younger, less experienced men.
There are also alternative treatments, such as using a penis pump or a penile injection. Penis pumps work by creating a vacuum and thereby causing more blood to flow to your penis. Penile injections need to be used shortly before intercourse. They contain a medication which widens your blood vessels. A doctor’s prescription is needed for the injections.
Cardiovascular diseases: The most common cause of cardiovascular diseases in the United States is atherosclerosis, the narrowing and hardening of arteries that reduces blood flow. Atherosclerosis (a type of vascular disease) typically affects arteries throughout the body; hypertension, high blood cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, and diabetes mellitus aggravate atherosclerosis. Hardening of the arteries to the penis and pelvic organs, atherosclerosis, causes insufficient blood flow into the penis. There is a close correlation between the severity of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries and erectile dysfunction. For example, men with more severe coronary artery atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries in the heart) also tend to have more erectile dysfunction than men with mild or no coronary artery atherosclerosis. Some doctors suggest that men with new onset erectile dysfunction undergo evaluation for silent coronary artery diseases (advanced coronary artery atherosclerosis that has not yet caused angina or heart attacks).
The U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a list of 29 OTC products that claim to treat erectile dysfunction. Patients should avoid these because many contain harmful ingredients. Other natural or herbal remedies such as DHEA, L-arginine, ginseng, and yohimbe are supplements that have been used but have not been proven safe and effective according to some researchers. Before using such compounds, individuals should consult their doctor. According to some experts, acupuncture does not effectively treat erectile dysfunction. Other home remedies for reducing ED symptoms include diet changes such as eating blueberries and citrus fruits and drinking red wine.
Acetylcholine released by the parasympathetic nerves is thought to act primarily on endothelial cells to release a second nonadrenergic-noncholinergic carrier of the signal that relaxes the trabecular smooth muscle. Nitric oxide released by the endothelial cells, and possibly also of neural origin, is currently thought to be the leading of several candidates as this nonadrenergic-noncholinergic transmitter; but this has not yet been conclusively demonstrated to the exclusion of other potentially important substances (e.g., vasoactive intestinal polypeptide). The relaxing effect of nitric oxide on the trabecular smooth muscle may be mediated through its stimulation of guanylate cyclase and the production of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), which would then function as a second messenger in this system.
Surgical intervention for a number of conditions may remove anatomical structures necessary to erection, damage nerves, or impair blood supply. Erectile dysfunction is a common complication of treatments for prostate cancer, including prostatectomy and destruction of the prostate by external beam radiation, although the prostate gland itself is not necessary to achieve an erection. As far as inguinal hernia surgery is concerned, in most cases, and in the absence of postoperative complications, the operative repair can lead to a recovery of the sexual life of patients with preoperative sexual dysfunction, while, in most cases, it does not affect patients with a preoperative normal sexual life.[11]
For the patient whose history suggests organic impotence, further history, physical and laboratory data will help identify the cause. The classification listed in Table 187.2 is based on the pathophysiologic scheme presented above, and includes mechanical problems that can interfere with erection. Vascular disease is the most common cause of impotence. In advanced cases, Lehriche's syndrome of aortoiliac occlusion will be suggested by bilateral thigh or calf claudication, loss of muscle mass in the buttocks and legs, and impotence. However, the majority of patients with vascular impotence have less severe vascular disease and many will have occlusive disease of the hypogastric-cavernous bed only. Even among patients without claudication, vascular disease is still a likely cause of impotence, especially if risk factors for atherosclerosis are present. Nonatherosclerotic disease is a consideration in the patient with a history of trauma or radiation to the pelvis, both of which cause fibrosis of vessels.
Injection therapy involves injecting a substance into the penis to enhance blood flow and cause an erection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug called alprostadil (Caverject) for this purpose in July of 1995. Alprostadil relaxes smooth muscle tissue to enhance blood flow into the penis. It must be injected shortly before intercourse. Another, similar drug that is sometimes used is papaverine—not yet been approved by the FDA for this use. Either drug may sometimes cause painful erections or priapism (uncomfortable, prolonged erections) that must be treated with a shot of epinephrine.
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.
With sex therapy, your counselor looks at the sexual problems you and your partner are having. Sex therapy works with problems such as performance anxiety, which means that you worry so much about whether you will be able to have sex that you are not able to. It also helps when you have erection problems that are not due to physical or drug problems, or premature ejaculation (you come too quickly). It may help you to reach orgasm or to learn to relax enough to avoid pain during sex. Counseling can help you to adjust to the treatment you and your doctor choose.

The first stem cell study for the treatment of ED was published in 2004. This study used embryonic stem cells to treat ED. At this time, there is a total of 36 published basic studies assessing stem cell therapy for ED, with two clinical trials. The mechanism of action of stem cells is to generate angiogenesis with subsequent increase in cavernosal smooth muscle cells within the corporal bodies.46
The general medical history is important in identifying specific risk factors that may account for or contribute to the patient's erectile dysfunction. These include vascular risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, smoking, coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disorders, pelvic trauma or surgery, and blood lipid abnormalities. Decreased sexual desire or history suggesting a hypogonadal state could indicate a primary endocrine disorder. Neurologic causes may include a history of diabetes mellitus or alcoholism with associated peripheral neuropathy. Neurologic disorders such as multiple sclerosis, spinal injury, or cerebrovascular accidents are often obvious or well defined prior to presentation. It is essential to obtain a detailed medication and illicit drug history since an estimated 25 percent of cases of erectile dysfunction may be attributable to medications for other conditions. Past medical history can reveal important causes of erectile dysfunction, including radical pelvic surgery, radiation therapy, Peyronie's disease, penile or pelvic trauma, prostatitis, priapism, or voiding dysfunction. Information regarding prior evaluation or treatment for "impotence" should be obtained. A detailed sexual history, including current sexual techniques, is important in the general history obtained. It is also important to determine if there have been previous psychiatric illnesses such as depression or neuroses.

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.
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