The mechanisms by which testosterone plays a role in erectile function are not completely understood. A study evaluating the effect of testosterone on erections in surgically castrated rabbits and control animals, in which the rabbits’ intracavernosal pressures were compared after cavernosal nerve stimulation, determined that castrated rabbits had much lower pressures after stimulation than control rabbits did.  Notably, the pressures increased when castrated rabbits received exogenous testosterone replacement.
The history can be useful in distinguishing organic from psychogenic impotence (Table 187.1). The patient with organic impotence describes problems with erection that progress over months to years. At first, the patient will have partial erections or seemingly firm erections that become flaccid during intercourse. With time, total erectile failure ensues. Organic impotence is constant and nonselective, meaning it is not better or worse with any specific partner or any type of stimulation.
Endocrine problems, though uncommon, should be considered in patients presenting with impotence. As a rule, impotence due to hypogonadism will be partial and accompanied by decreased libido. Hypothalmic–pituitary problems, which include tumors, are the most common endocrine disorders causing impotence, followed by primary gonadal failure from one of many causes. Poorly controlled diabetes with polyuria and polydypsia is an important reversible cause of impotence, as is hyperthyroidism. Certain drugs, alcohol included, can lead to impotence as a result of endocrine disturbances.
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.
The neurologic pathways required for erection originate in the cerebral cortex where visual, auditory, and psychic stimuli are processed, and in the pudenal nerve, an afferent nerve that transmits tactile sensations from the genitals to the sacral segments of the spinal cord and cortex. Efferent signals from the spinal cord pass along the pelvic parasympathetic nerves and dilate the corporal vessels. The specific neurotransmitters have not been fully defined; acetylcholine, and perhaps vasoactive intestinal peptide, appears to be important. There are many causes of neurogenic impotence. Anything that disrupts neural pathways or blocks neurochemical transmission will have an adverse effect on erection. Psychologic factors probably interfere with erection by inhibiting corticosacral efferent pathways.
The most important organic causes of impotence are cardiovascular disease and diabetes, neurological problems (for example, trauma from prostatectomy surgery), hormonal insufficiencies (hypogonadism) and drug side effects. Psychological impotence is where erection or penetration fails due to thoughts or feelings (psychological reasons) rather than physical impossibility; this is somewhat less frequent but can often be helped. In psychological impotence, there is a strong response to placebo treatment.
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.
Occasional successful sexual function and early morning erections do not preclude the possibility of endocrine dysfunction. Since abnormally low levels of testosterone frequently are the primary cause of impotence, it is recommended that determination of the blood level of testosterone be an integral part of the total evaluation of the impotent patient.
Erectile dysfunction affects millions of men. Although for some men erectile function may not be the best or most important measure of sexual satisfaction, for many men erectile dysfunction creates mental stress that affects their interactions with family and associates. Many advances have occurred in both diagnosis and treatment of erectile dysfunction. However, its various aspects remain poorly understood by the general population and by most health care professionals. Lack of a simple definition, failure to delineate precisely the problem being assessed, and the absence of guidelines and parameters to determine assessment and treatment outcome and long-term results, have contributed to this state of affairs by producing misunderstanding, confusion, and ongoing concern. That results have not been communicated effectively to the public has compounded this situation.
This may be the oldest excuse in the book as a reason not to have safe sex, but research has confirmed that condoms may interfere with some men’s ability to have and hold an erection. For example, a 2006 study found that, over a three-month period, about 37 percent of men lost at least one erection when putting on a condom, or during sex with a condom, SexualHealth.com reported.
Then you have to be able to make the right diagnosis. What is the basis for their erectile dysfunction? Is it psychogenic? Is it some sort of neurological or blood vessel or hormonal issue? So you have to make a diagnosis. You have to be able to make an assessment. And then only after those things are done, then you start to think about medications.
If PDE5 drugs don't work or cannot be used because of potential side effects, your doctor can recommend other therapies. The drug alprostadil (Caverject, Edex, Muse) allows blood to flow more freely in the penis, leading to an erection. The drug can be injected with a tiny needle into your penis. Or, a small pellet (suppository) can be inserted into the opening of the penis. Suppositories and injections are effective in the majority of men.
Patients with both ED and cardiovascular disease who receive treatment with an oral PDE5 inhibitor require education regarding what to do if anginal episodes develop while the drug is in their system. Such education includes stressing the importance of alerting emergency care providers to the presence of the drug so that nitrate treatment is avoided.
Exercise and lifestyle modifications may improve erectile function. Weight loss may help by decreasing inflammation, increasing testosterone, and improving self-esteem. Patients should be educated to increase activity, reduce weight, and stop smoking, as these efforts can improve or restore erectile function in men without comorbidities. Precise glycemic control in diabetic patients and pharmacologic treatment of hypertension may be important in preventing or reducing sexual dysfunction. 
Several pathways have been described to explain how information travels from the hypothalamus to the sacral autonomic centers. One pathway travels from the dorsomedial hypothalamus through the dorsal and central gray matter, descends to the locus ceruleus, and projects ventrally in the mesencephalic reticular formation. Input from the brain is conveyed through the dorsal spinal columns to the thoracolumbar and sacral autonomic nuclei.
If you can keep an erection when you’re alone, then you’re probably worried about something when you’re with your partner. Think about how you feel and then talk to your partner about your concerns. You might be putting too much pressure on yourself or not protecting yourself by using condoms and birth control. Or maybe you’ll discover that you’re really not ready for sex right now and need to wait until it feels right.
It is important for clinicians prescribing these drugs to make the patient aware of the action of the drugs especially the fact that they do not result in an immediate erection, and that they do not cause an erection without sexual stimulation. There is frequently a great expectation when men begin using these drugs and it is wise to temper their enthusiasm and explain they do not work immediately, and may not work every time, but also let the patient know that if these drugs do not work, there are other options.
There are treatments available to help you to get and maintain an erection. In addition, making healthy changes to your lifestyle could help with impotence. Switching to a healthier balanced diet, taking more exercise and cutting down on or giving up alcohol and cigarettes could help you to see an improvement in sexual function. If you think that the problem may be related to stress or anxiety, counselling can also help.
Another potential new treatment consists of penile low-intensity shock wave lithotripsy. This consists of 1500 shocks twice a week for 3–6 weeks. The purpose is to stimulate neovascularisation to the corporal bodies with improvement in penile blood flow and endothelial function. The use of low-intensity shock wave lithotripsy may convert PDE5 inhibitor non-responders to responders.47
Examination of the vascular system is particularly relevant to the evaluation of the impotent patient. Absence of pulses in the feet and presence of femoral bruits suggest atherosclerosis. However, normal femoral and pedal pulses do not exclude selective obstruction to penile blood flow. Direct palpation of the dorsal artery of the penis may be informative if pulsation is absent. The presence of a pulse, however, does not rule out vascular disease, particularly in a patient who is able to achieve normal erections at rest, but unable to maintain them during thrusting. At the same time that the penile pulses are palpated, the examiner should feel for plaques in the corpora cavernosa which would indicate Peyronie's disease.
In terms of practical solutions, this is a common problem so there are some common aids. Drugs like Viagra or Cialis or Levitra work for many, many men. If his doctor recommends it, there’s no shame in popping a pill if it solves the problem — particularly if it helps alleviate the anxiety. Sometimes, a guy just needs to get his groove back for a while so he can relax and start having fun again. Also don’t forget the noble, oft-ignored cock ring, which constricts blood flow and helps men keep it up. They’re cheap and easy.
ED is often the result of atherosclerosis, and as a result, men with ED frequently have cardiovascular disease. Sexual activity is associated with increased physical exertion, which in some men may increase the risk of having a heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI). The major risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease are age, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, smoking, abnormal lipid/cholesterol levels in the blood, and lack of exercise. Individuals with three or more of these risk factors are at increased risk for a heart attack during sexual activity. The Princeton Consensus Panel developed guidelines for treating ED in men with cardiovascular disease. Thus, if you have ED and cardiovascular disease (for example, angina or prior heart attack), you should discuss whether or not treatment of ED and sexual activity are appropriate for you.
Metabolism (breakdown) of vardenafil can be slowed by aging, liver disease, and concurrent use of certain medications (such as erythromycin [an antibiotic], ketoconazole [Nizoral, a medication for fungal/yeast infections], and protease inhibitors [medications used to treat AIDS]). Slowed breakdown allows vardenafil to accumulate in the body and potentially increase the risk for side effects. Therefore, in men over 65 years of age with liver disease, or who are also taking medication(s) that can slow the breakdown of vardenafil, the doctor will initiate vardenafil at low doses to avoid its accumulation. For example,
Diabetes is an example of an endocrine disease that can cause a person to experience impotence. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to utilize the hormone insulin. One of the side effects associated with chronic diabetes is nerve damage. This affects penis sensations. Other complications associated with diabetes are impaired blood flow and hormone levels. Both of these factors can contribute to impotence.
The association of CVD and ED was noted in 1997 as one analysed the results of the MMAS. In this landmark study, 1709 men aged 40–70 years were enrolled between 1987 and 1989. A follow-up some 10 years later revealed a striking relationship between ED and CVD. In this study, it became clear that the risk factors for ED were very similar to those of CVD, such as diabetes mellitus, smoking and dyslipidaemia.18
If you are taking medications (alpha-blockers) for problems with an enlarged prostate, you should discuss your prostate medications with your doctor. Alpha-blockers also can cause lowering of the blood pressure. Thus your doctor will need to carefully watch your blood pressure when you start the PDE5 inhibitor. Common alpha-blockers include doxazosin (Cardura), terazosin (Hytrin), and tamsulosin (Flomax).
If you’re no longer having intercourse, you don’t need erections. Most men assume that erections are necessary for sex. No. Couples can have great sex without them. Intercourse becomes problematic for older couples. Men have erection issues and post-menopausal women develop vaginal dryness and atrophy that can make intercourse uncomfortable (or worse) even with lubricants. Many older couples jettison intercourse in favor of mutual massage, oral sex, and sex toys—and still enjoy hot sex.
Chronic stress dumps adrenaline in your system multiple times a day. And that can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Chronic stress is like red-lining your car all day long. When you drive 100 mph all the time, something is going to break down. A high-stress environment can actually change the way your brain sends messages to your body. Dumping too much adrenaline into your bloodstream can affect blood flow and severely limit your ability to achieve and maintain an erection.
Think of erectile dysfunction as your body’s “check engine light.” The blood vessels in the penis are smaller than other parts of the body, so underlying conditions like blocked arteries, heart disease, or high blood pressure usually show up as ED before something more serious like a heart attack or stroke. ED is your body’s way of saying, “Something is wrong.” And the list of things that cause erectile dysfunction can include: