Erectile dysfunction can have so many long-lasting effects that the inability to achieve an erection is almost the least of them. Men who suffer from erectile dysfunction often suffer from self-esteem concerns, and these can then translate into issues regarding sexual relationships, friendships, and even work-related relationships. As things begin to spiral out of control, men dealing with erectile dysfunction may go on to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems that further inhibit relationship and sexual intimacy. So what is it that’s causing this mess?
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.
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.
The FDA does not recommend alternative therapies to treat sexual dysfunction. Many products are advertised as "herbal viagra" or "natural" sexual enhancement products, but no clinical trials or scientific studies support the effectiveness of these products for the treatment of erectile dysfunction, and synthetic chemical compounds similar to sildenafil have been found as adulterants in many of these products. The United States Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers that any sexual enhancement product that claims to work as well as prescription products is likely to contain such a contaminant.
The risk of impotence increases with age. It is four-fold higher in men in their 60s compared with those in their 40s according to a study published in the Journal of Urology (2000;163:460-463). Men with less education are also more likely to experience impotence, perhaps because they tend to have less healthy lifestyles, eat a less healthy diet, drink more and exercise less. Physical exercise tends to lessen the risk of impotence.